Bright ideas for bulbs: Want to grow tulips on a tight budget or lilies for less?

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The Independent Online

My bulb order is by far my biggest single spend of the gardening year. It could easily come to over £150, which I think works out at only slightly less expensive, per square foot, than Canary Wharf . But in these credit-crunch times, I began wondering: are there ways of saving money on a spring display without compromising on the oomph?

The first thing I always do is buy from a reputable bulb catalogue, rather than at the last minute from the garden centre. Prices seem to vary wildly but you always pay more for quality. A great supplier such as Avon Bulbs (www.avonbulbs.co.uk) will send fat bulbs primed to spring into flower; it makes sure its plants are treated well the year before so they are more likely to actually bloom, leading to less duds, where only leaves appear but no flowers.

Second, I'd pick easy and proven bulbs. Trickier cultivars and species will be less likely to flourish and may not give the splendid display I am after. Parrot tulips are wonderful fun, but seem to me prone to aphid attacks and tulip fire – spores that prevent them from flowering properly. Camassias are utterly gorgeous, but last only days, so aren't best value. And steer clear of the expensive and tricksy foxtail lily, Eremurus.

Next, I would think about restricting the colour range. A planting of 60 tulips in the same colour has a more dramatic effect than three lots of 20 in three shades. "White Triumphator" is an elegant and strong-growing tulip that will impose itself on your garden, adding a ribbon of white through the beds and a touch of lily-flowered smartness that suggests you've paid through the nose for it, while coming in at a fairly reasonable £12 for 25 bulbs (at Avon). Look for AGMs on your bulbs, too (Awards of Garden Merit), which tell you that the bulbs performed well in trials.

When it comes to actually getting them in the soil, follow the planting instructions, especially when it comes to depth. Tulips in particular will have a fighting chance of flowering for a second year if you make the extra effort to plant them deep, and you'll lose far fewer bulbs of all kinds to thieving squirrels, too.

Lastly, let me let you into the best-kept secret of all: if your bulb order is going to total more than £50, use a wholesaler. J Parker's wholesale catalogue, available at www.dutchbulbs.co.uk, offers substantial savings compared with a retail seller. The prices are mostly given for hundreds of bulbs, but the small print allows you to buy just 25. Even my teeny garden could benefit from planting 100 "Purple Sensation" alliums, giving a strong backbone of colour in April and May, which would cost just £10.50 from Parker's. At those prices, you might even justify a splurge.

Saving graces: More budget blooms

'Allium sphaerocephalon'

This metallic mauve-coned allium flowers later than the rest, and will spin out the value of your bulb planting until well into July. £7 for 50, www.broadleighbulbs.co.uk

'Scented narcissi'

Sarah Raven offers discount on variety packs of these bulbs, that include the celebrated "Pheasant's Eye". £10.45 for 45 bulbs, www.sarahraven.com

'White Triumphator'

Utterly white, they'll wave in the wind like clean laundry on the most elegant clothes line. £23 for 50, from www.avonbulbs.co.uk

'Nectaroscordum bulgaricum'

For exoticism pick this oriental beauty, normally cheap despite being expensive in looks. £8.95 for 30, www.sarahraven.com

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