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Planting Bulbs

Planting bulbs in pots or garden

On receipt of your bulb order

When you receive your box of bulbs we recomend that you open it up as soon as possible. The bulbs should then be transferred to an airy situation so there is a free passage of air around the bulbs. This can be achieved by using net bags or even ladies tights. If the bulbs are left in their packaging for more than a few days after receipt they could start to 'sweat'. This could easily lead to basal rot - at the bottom of the bulb - and it will quickly deteriorate. It is also best to keep the bulbs in a cool / mid temperature, in the region of 45 - 50 deg F, until planted. Many gardeners successfully use their garage for bulb storage.

Planting Bulbs

There are significant 'best planting time windows' between the wide range of bulbs we offer. Our suggested times for planting are as follows:-

Planting Daffodil Bulbs

The best time to plant is from September until mid October. They like to make long roots before flowering and fully produce their leaves first. Therefore plant as soon as possible.

Planting Tulips (tulipa) Bulbs

The best time to plant is from early November until end of December. The ground must be cool before planting or they could be subjected to tulip fire. The RHS are carrying out a test this year with a delayed bulb planting - the end of January. I think that there will be little significant difference compared to a November planting.

Planting Iris & Crocus Bulbs

Due to their early flowering they should be planted as soon as possible - mid September to end October- and when you receive them some may have started to shoot. Iris bulbs should be planted 3-4in deep and crocus 2in.

Planting Fritillaria

Plant as soon as possible in September for rare species and by the end of October for garden varieties. Alpine specialists have their own methods depending upon the species.

Planting Allium & Muscari

With the muscari flowering very early it is best to have an early planting - late September to mid October. The alliums don't mind being out of the soil for a little longer but plant as soon as you can in October.

Bulbs in Pots - planting & growing

The choice between plastic or clay pots for most bulbs is an ongoing debate. Plastic pots have their use and so do traditional terracotta pots especially for rare and expensive alpine species.

The main requirement when growing in a pot is to ensure that there is excellent drainage. The fundamental requirement is to crock the bottom of the pot with broken pieces of terracotta and then add a handful of alpine grit
(image below). This should greatly help in preventing waterlogging.

The normal potting mixture is 2/3 loam based John Innes No3 with 1/3 additional grit/sharp sand. This is the minimum amout of grit/sharp sand which should be incorporated into your potting mix. A number of top AGS exhibitors now use a 50% - 50% mix. However, for general pot culture I still use a 60% - 40% mix. The reason for using so much sand/grit is to ensure good drainage during the heavy downpours which we now often experience. With these mixes some additional high potash fertiliser needs to be incorporated. The approx. amount being a teaspoonful per 8" pot. We strongly recommend that you do not use bulb fibre or a soiless compost since it will add very little to your bulb growth for the following year. However, if you intend to throw the bulbs and potting mixture out after one year this should still be satisfactory and you will get a 1 year flush of flowers. Although I would still add a large percentage of grit/sand.

After crocking the pot it should be half-filled with the compost. Small pyramid-shaped handfuls of sharp grit sand should then be placed on top of the mixture to match the number of bulbs to be planted in the pot - normally 3 - 7. The bulbs are then placed into the grit/sand (image below).

The pot is then topped up to within 1" of the top rim with the compost. The pot should then have a top finish of alpine grit (image below) and the bulbs watered in but not excessively. Don't forget to put at least one label in the pot.

Place the pot in a frost free location outside and cover with dried leaves or something similar to a depth of 2" or 3" if possible. Given our extreme cold - frozen periods it is now important to provide side protection to the pots since if the roots become frozen the bulb will die. We place our pots in cold frames for side protection and then put the leaves on top as indicated above. The pot should not be allowed to dry out but conversely it should not become waterlogged or the bulbs could still rot.

The technique of growing in an alpine house is slightly different and these specialists have their own ways with the pots normally standing in raised gritty sand beds. The above mainly relates to daffodils and tulips for patios, conservatories and general exhibition growing.

Planting Garden Bulbs

The majority of spring bulbs are very accommodating. However, any extremes of soil types and pH will affect the bulb's growth and may not maximise its potential.

As a general rule bulbs should be planted at about 2 or 3 times their own depth in the garden or rockery. The same general requirement, a need for good drainage, exists for growing both in pots or the garden, . One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to plant every bulb on a small handful of 'grit/sharp sand'. This helps to protect the basal plate especially from basal rot. See above picture.

One very important thing which must be remembered is feed the bulbs - see the following section. This is something that many gardeners fail to do and then wonder why they do not get flowers year after year.

Growing Bulbs - feeding

All bulbs whether in the garden or in pots require feed to reach their flowering potential. Bulbs will not reach their maximum size and slowly deteriorate unless they are fed. The feed can be in a soluble or a dry form. The best N.P.K for both is 10N-10P-30K or something close - a high potash feed such as a tomato feed.

Dry feed should be added to the potting mixture or sprinkled on the garden area and lightly forked in when the bulbs are planted. The rate of application being as specified by the fertiliser manufacturer. Additionally dry feed should be given when the bulbs have flowered in May. This applies to pots and the garden and helps to build up the flower for next year.

If you are seeking to maximise the size of your blooms for exhibition purposes it is also recommended that a high potash liquid feed is given in early February. Some exhibitors then continue to feed on a bi-weekly basis at 'half strength' to get the largest possible flower. However, this can distort the natural shape of the flower and should only be done if you have a large number of bulbs to grow and will accept a high flower wastage. This high level of feeding is not recommended for miniature and alpine bulbs. It is also not necessary for general garden planting as it can produce extra foliage growth and elongate the stems making the flowers more prone to the vagaries of our spring weather.

Growing Bulbs - producing next year's flower

To help the bulb produce the best possible flower for the following year -

- the seed head should be removed as soon as flowering has finished; unless seeds are being collected.

- the leaves should also be left as long as possible, preferably until they die down naturally - do not tie or cut off.

This twin action helps the bulb to recharge itself for next year's flower together with the feeding program above.


- Always plant your bulbs on grit/sharp sand whether growing in pots or in the garden.

- Use a dry high potash fertiliser in your potting mix and when planting in the garden.

- Feed all your bulbs once or twice a year and especially after they have flowered, normally early May, and let them die back naturally.

I wish you many years of enjoyment with your bulb growing and hope these tips are of help.

Frank Charlton

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