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The Independent Culture
LIKE back-to-school shop windows, the bulb catalogues arrive long before the end of summer - so early it seems there will be plenty of time to think about the garden's uniform for next spring. But the choice is dwindling. Although you can buy bulbs at garden centres, mail-order catalogues have a wider range. They also tend to be cheaper, and their storage is probably better than that of the average shop. This week and over the next four, I'll be looking at different bulbs, starting with narcissi (the name covers all of the daffodil tribe).

Orders for narcissi must be made soon. Tulips can survive in a paper bag until December and still come up radiant in spring, but daffodils need an early start. September is the time to plant them, so that their roots are made ready before the cold weather comes.

As gardens shrink, daffodils seem to get larger. Too large for me are the giant golden "King Alfred's" that prance on every roadside verge. The ones that inspired Wordsworth to write of "a host of golden daffodils" or Herrick to weep for the departing "Fair daffodils" were wildings. They were probably the ordinary lent lily, N. pseudonarcissus, with yellow trumpets and paler petals; but Wordsworth may have been describing another wild form, N. pseudonarcissus obvallaris, the Tenby daffodil, which is all gold. I like N. lobularis, which is also pale gold, and any of these unimproved native flowers are in tune with the gentle appearance of spring. The cake-burning king's namesakes are brash companions for the other small spring-flowering bulbs.

A little more sophisticated and larger than the pure wild forms are the cyclamineus hybrids, which are a cross between a species native to Spain and Portugal and our own daffodils. They are easy to recognise because they have swept-back petals. The brightest yellow and probably the best known is "February Gold" - which is never as early as its name suggests. "February Silver" is paler, in two tones of yellow; and "Jenny" is also a good one to choose if egg-yolk yellow is not your favourite shade. "Tete a Tete" is bright, but small and fairly early.

All the wild forms and most of the cyclamineus hybrids can be grown in sun or partial shade, but a soil that stays moist in summer suits them best. For drier gardens, the triandus hybrids, which have three flower heads to a stem, are probably better. I like "Thalia" and "Liberty Bells", both so pale they are almost white. They do less well in grass than native and cyclamineus groups.

A narcissus that is increasingly hard to find is the old "Pheasant's Eye". The flowers are small but their smell is the best of all. Many people prefer "Actaea", which has the same flat cup with red rim and a good scent but is larger and flowers earlier. It has to be admitted that the disadvantage of "Pheasant's Eye" is the late flowering season. Like all narcissi that you grow in grass, their surroundings cannot be mown until six weeks after the last flowers have faded. Tidy gardeners who do not want long grass in July should choose "Actaea". Both like a rich soil. I find that if you can be bothered to dead-head the narcissi, they look less depressing. With the "Pheasant's Eye" in the orchard here they all get picked for the house, so there are never any browned-off petals.

For pots and tubs, the smallest narcissi, "Minnow", "Hawera" and "Topolino" are all pretty and long-flowering. For those who like doubles, "Rip Van Winkle" is a name to request.

All narcissi will stop flowering when groups of their bulbs get too congested, but divided and replanted in late June they should perform as well as ever. In grass they look better planted in drifts of unevenly spaced bulbs. The old recommendation to throw them out in handfuls and plant them where they fall is still as good a way as any of ensuring a natural effect.

SUPPLIERS: Jacques Amand, The Nurseries, Clamp Hill, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 3JS (0181-954 8138); Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE (01460 42177); Peter Nyssen Ltd, Railway Road, Urmston, Manchester M41 0WX (0161 7486666)

Mary Keen