Buried treasures: Bulb catalogues are one of life's guilty pleasures - but you need good advice if you're not to be disappointed next spring, says Anna Pavord

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The Independent Online

On the hottest days of August, I retreated to our new hammock house and, gently swaying in the shade, read bulb catalogues. 'Sad,' said one of the children, as I tried to describe the extraordinary pleasure the pages give. She'll get there herself one day. Meanwhile, the mad asterisks build up in the margins of my three favourite catalogues, and equally mad sums are dispensed on crocus, small narcissus, grape hyacinths, erythroniums, alliums and bulbous iris. I once wrote about the guilt induced by the size of the cheque I was sending to a bulb firm. A reader immediately got in touch. 'Do it on Visa,' she wrote. 'Then you never see the sum.' It's a brilliant tip.

Of all types of plant, bulbs now interest me the most. They have such a clever, energy-efficient way of growing. They give us the best bit of their lives and then disappear . In the garden, that means arranging good foliage in the places where they grow so that they can borrow it when they are flowering (few bulbs have leaves of their own worth looking at). If you grow them without leafy companions, you are left with a big bare spot after the spring and early summer display. The variegated thyme 'Silver Posie' makes a good companion for early species crocus. Euphorbias provide a handsome backdrop for tulips. So does the massive Geranium palmatum which leafs up very early, and the big wild fennel ( Ferula communis) of Mediterranean hillsides.

Autumn bulb catalogues concentrate on bulbs that flower from early to late spring. In spring there's another round of catalogues listing summer-flowering beauties such as triteleia, acidanthera and lilies. Each year I grow something I've never heard of: Muscari paradoxum was on last season's order and it was a beauty. Grape hyacinths don't ever come high on a gardener's wish list. We think of them as rather weedy also-rans - too much leaf, not enough flower.

But this member of the family had just three leaves, about as broad as a bluebell's and they were only as tall as the flower, so it wasn't swamped. The flower spike was navy blue at the bottom and paler on top, arranged in a neat, regular pyramid. The bottom bells fell off before the whole spike had opened, so I never saw the whole thing out at once. But you can understand why the flower needs to do this: it spreads the chance of finding an insect to pollinate it so that it can set seed. At close quarters Muscari paradoxum turned out to be an intriguing, rather special thing, with pale creamy stamens just showing at the mouth of each bell. I was glad to have met it.

Although it was listed in Parker's catalogue as a grape hyacinth, The Plant Finder (the ultimate authority on the naming of names) indicates that Muscari paradoxum has now been switched to another group of plants, the bellevalias. Sadly, in the recent trial of small blue bulbs carried out at Wisley by the Royal Horticultural Society, the judging panel was 'unimpressed' by bellevalias, and none of them was given the much-coveted Award of Garden Merit.

Four grape hyacinths got AGMs: Christmas Pearl, Saffier, pale ice-blue Jenny Robinson and Muscari latifolium. The early flowering Muscari armeniacum (Christmas Pearl) is scented and can be gently forced for an even earlier display. But the leaves come through in autumn, and by the time the flowers catch them up, the foliage can look tatty. Saffier has the same habit but is later flowering. They adapt well to life in pots and window boxes, especially when planted in a John Innes compost, rather than a multipurpose one. Mix two parts of compost with one part of grit to make sure the compost drains freely. I top off my pots with gravel too. It stops blackbirds tossing the compost about and means the flowers come through cleanly in spring.

Muscari latifolium, a species from southwest Asia, does better in shade than sun. It's a tall, showy grape hyacinth with one sheath leaf, rather like a lily-of-the-valley. The flower emerges on its own stem from the base of the leaf, about 5cm tall with a dark, blackish-blue spike of bells topped with a sky-blue topknot. It was a surprising little thing, flowering with us in late March. It likes good, deep soil and a quiet life. If you can resist fidgeting in the soil around it, it will spread gently and elegantly. It's probably my favourite among the grape hyacinths.

A disappointment (there are always some) was a small iris called Natasha. She's an Iris reticulata, from an early-flowering family of bulbous irises that are excellent in pots. I've grown quite a few of them - Gordon, Harmony, only about 12-15cm tall, with grassy foliage - and have loved them all. Natasha was described as 'ivory white, veined green with a golden yellow blotch', so I ordered 25 and crammed them in a shallow bowl by the front door.

The flowers came out in early March, later than others of their tribe, and were a rather grubby shade of grey. They were small, too, so the overall effect was like a load of shrunken clothes, put on the wrong wash. The dirty-looking petals were veined in a slightly darker shade of grey-blue with a tiny orange flash on the throat. This year I'm going for Purple Gem, described as 'plum purple, blotch purple on white ground'. I like these terse descriptions. Though it can lead to misunderstandings, as happened with Natasha, it also leaves plenty of room for surprises. Bulbs are usually much more complex and interesting than their catalogue descriptions suggest. The most outrageous newcomer was the allium, Globemaster. At first, I tried being sniffy about it, saying it was too big for its own good, etc, etc. But in fact it was fantastic. The leaves frightened me - they were so huge and fleshy and bright, bright green. But they lay quietly in flattish rosettes on the ground, and the stems (about 90cm tall and as bright and as green as the leaves) shot up through neighbouring herbaceous geraniums, bronze fennel and sea hollies with astonishing speed. Colour began to drain from the purple-mauve heads by early July, but the heads themselves are still spectacular. I want some more.

My favourite bulb catalogues are: Bloms, Primrose Nurseries, Melchbourne, Beds, 01234 709099, www.blomsbulbs.com; Parker's Wholesale, 452 Chester Road, Manchester, 0161-848 1124, www.dutchbulbs.co.uk (only for those who order in quantity); Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset, 01460 242177, www.avonbulbs.co.uk; Rare Plants, PO Box 468, Wrexham, 01978 366399, www.rareplants.co.uk