Anna Pavord: "Time to get planting for spring"

Spring may be a distant dream, but now is the time to start planning for it, advises our horticultural expert, who gives her top tips on which bulbs to plant this year
Click to follow
The Independent Online

By early August, the seedpods of the species tulips are ripe to gather. They are beautifully made, triangular in outline, with the seeds stacked up like Pringles in the three chambers into which each seedpod is divided. No computer could have come up with a design so efficient. In fact, I lost faith in computers as design tools when we were putting in the kitchen of our new house.

For the worktops, we'd decided to re-use big slabs of marble liberated from one of the bathrooms. On the day the marble cutter was due to turn up, the architect arrived with the calculations and drawings her computer had made, showing how the available material would best fit into the available space. The computer suggested 14 joints would be necessary. The marble cutter did the entire worktop with just three. Which left me with plenty of spare marble to use as a worksurface in the new greenhouse.

The seedpods are a reminder, not only that the tulip seed must be sown, but that I must send off an order for more bulbs to plant ready for spring. I do the same thing every year, almost as if I think spring won't come unless I plant bulbs to celebrate it. Of course it will. But the fact that crocuses get eaten by mice, that tulips fade away in our less-than-perfect conditions, that wretched pheasants peck the tops off the baby iris, never stops me from pushing yet more spring bulbs into the garden. I tell myself that, as a habit, it's cheaper than shoes or handbags. I can get 20 Crocus sieberi for £3.80. And I'm beginning to accept that the survival of bulbs from year to year is a bonus rather than a certainty.

When, for instance, an amazing stand of Lilium longiflorum bloomed in the flower garden this summer, I was overjoyed. I hadn't expected it. They'd done well in a pot the previous summer and I planted them out because I was trying to cut down on the amount of pots around the place, not because I expected them to do better in the ground. Lilium longiflorum! Who'd have thought it. This is the archetypal florist's lily, with long elegant trumpets, pure white and narcotically scented. I thought 10 times more of that than I did of the tall purple alliums that are one of the few bulbs you can rely on to come back (and even increase) each season.

We have better soil here, for bulbs, than I've ever had before, light, well-drained greensand, rather than the clay which has, until this garden, been the only kind of soil I've ever known. So I've become more inclined to use groups of bulbs in the flower garden, mixed with the giant fennels and monkshoods, the spurges and thalictrums that make up the bulk of the herbaceous planting.

Lilium longiflorum is the archetypal florist's lily - long elegant trumpets, pure white and narcotically scented (Rex)

But even with this better soil, I still use the same technique I've always used. Bulbs destined for the border still get planted first in pots. Big black plastic pots, filled partly with our own compost, partly with a mix of John Innes No 3 (two scoops) mixed with one scoop of 6mm gravel. This way, I can keep an eye on the bulbs during their most vulnerable period during winter and early spring. I can cover them with netting against squirrels and other marauding animals and birds. When they come into flower, I can decide whether the flowers are as good as the picture suggested, and whether I'd want to see them again or not.

Then, when the flowers have died down, I plant them in the borders. The advantage of re-planting in summer is that I can see clearly where the gaps are. Planting in October and November is trickier because all remnants of bulbs such as iris or tulips have disappeared and you run the risk of trying to plant one lot of bulbs on top of another and slicing the previous incumbents to bits as you are doing it.

Another advantage is that I can leave annuals such as ammi, cleome and late-flowering tender perennials such as Salvia dombeyi to continue to flower, as they will often do if we have a mild October. Bulbs in the border are often destined to fill the spaces that annuals have previously occupied, but it's easier to plant these spaces when the annuals themselves aren't there.

So in spring, before the bulbs come into flower, I can carry them in their pots to the spaces that I can now see need to be filled in the border. And when the flowers actually bloom, I can check whether there's going to be an unforeseen colour clash. Planting twice, you may think, is a chore. But I've got used to this way of doing things and for me, it works.

In our border this season I'm adding:

'Eye of the Tiger', a Dutch iris about 60cm tall that blooms in late May and early June. This one has purplish blue standards and brownish-red falls, each marked with a flash of yellow. A beauty available from de Jager ( at £4.10 for 10.

'King of the Blues', an English iris which usefully comes into bloom just as the Dutch iris are going over. It's usually slightly shorter (40-50cm) but with bigger flowers. This variety is deep blue, scratched with white in the throat. Available from Avon Bulbs ( at £5 for five.

'Allium cernuum' is a charming allium with deep pink nodding flowers, more than 30 in a head, the stemlets flushed a deeper purple. 45-50cm tall, flowering with us in June and early July. Available from Bloms ( at £9.40 for 10.