Contain yourself: It doesn't require a large plot or a lot of toil to ensure stunning spring bulb displays

 

You only need a space 28cm square to set up a dream of spring. That's the size of my favourite container, an old seed tray made of clay, the kind my great-uncle used before they invented plastic. When he died, I liberated it from his shed along with his rake and hoe. I use them still. The container is barely 8cm deep, but that's plenty enough for the early crocus and gorgeous little iris that flower in early February and March.

You'll need a bit more room to mix up the kind of compost in which I like to grow bulbs in containers. I use a loam compost (John Innes No 3) mixed with 6mm grit. Don't glaze over. It's not half as difficult as preparing sea bass à la something-or-other. Get a bag of the compost and a bag of grit from your garden centre. Set a bucket alongside and with a scoop – any scoop – make up your planting mix with one scoop of grit to two scoops of the loam compost.

The point of this is to make a mix that drains quickly. In the wild, many of these early flowering bulbs grow on the sides of mountains in almost pure shale. They aren't looking for rich food, but they do demand good drainage. In a mix that is permanently soggy, they'll rot.

Any bulb that you buy will already have the beginnings of its flower packed away inside its heart and you have to work hard to prevent that flower from coming out. In a container, where you want the best display possible in the smallest space, you can pack in the bulbs more closely than you would if you were planting in the open ground. In my 28cm square pot, I reckon I can fit 12 or 16 of the small crocus or iris. And even though the container is only 8cm deep, that's enough for these particular bulbs.

Of course, you can use a deeper container, aiming to set the bulbs 8-10cm down from the top. You don't have to fuss about 'crocking' the pot, with bits of broken-up polystyrene, or sharp-edged rubble. Recent research has shown that if you use a fast-draining compost, 'crocking' isn't necessary. After I've planted bulbs in pots or other containers, I always finish off the top with a layer of grit. It stops the blackbirds chucking the compost around, helps the pots drain and keeps the flowers clean as they push through in early spring.

When you've planted the bulbs and watered them, keep the container outside in a cool place and watch for signs of growth. It should not need much extra watering during winter. Just before flowering, you can bring the container inside, but with iris, particularly, it's important not to do this until you can actually see colour in the flower bud. Otherwise, the flowers will refuse to open. If you leave the container outside, the flowers will last much longer.

THE SIX BEST BULBS FOR A SPRING CONTAINER

Crocus sieberi 'Tricolor'; flowers Feb-March; height 5-8cm

This is a sturdily upright crocus, a tricolor triumph originally found on Mount Chelmos in Greece. The flower is outstanding, purple, with a white band separating it from the yellow at the bottom (better than it sounds). Dark bronze runs down the throat into the sheath. It's remarkable for the depth and intensity of its colour. The same markings appear on all six petals, which is perhaps what makes this crocus so striking. Often, the markings show only on the three outer petals. £3.80 for 20 from Avon Bulbs

Crocus tommasinianus 'Roseus'; flowers mid-Feb; height 8cm

A lovely little crocus, wild looking and seemingly fragile (though not). The petals are narrow, the interior colour a tranquil pinkish mauve, the three outer petals washed over on the outside with dove grey. It is one of the pinkest crocus you can grow, an enchanting sight when the sun coaxes out the flower. £3.50 for 10 from Jacques Amand

Crocus 'Vanguard'; flowers late Feb; height 10-12cm

This is bigger than most of the early-flowering crocus, but not as bossy as the large Dutch crocus that flower in March.f It seldom produces more than two flowers from each bulb, so it is not especially prolific but each bloom is beautifully put together. The three outer petals are dove grey on the outside, mauve on the inner, so the flower looks much paler in bud than it does when it opens to show off the startling stigma of burning hot orange. This is a flower with style, selected by JCM Hoog from a batch of bulbs sent to him from Russia, and the variations in the markings make an intriguing sight when it is planted en masse. £5.60 for 10 from Bloms Bulbs

Iris 'Gordon'; flowers early Feb; height 12cm

A very sturdy, upright little iris, with pleasing mid-greyish-blue standards, thin and only very slightly streaked with darker purple. The throat is white, veined with deep purple, and the end of the tongue is the same rich, velvety colour. Down the centre is a distinctive strong orange stripe. Enchanting. And easy. £3.60 for 15 from Avon Bulbs

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'; flowers late Jan; height 9cm

This is a gorgeous iris with wide, spoon-shaped, petals. The lid above them divides in two so that each one seems to look at you like an exceptionally alert mouse. Overall, the colour is rich blue, the throats creamy, with a bright yellow beard running down into the centre of the flower. The cream is stippled and streaked with the same blue-purple colour. The flowers smell of violets. This iris demands good drainage, and likes to be cool. Introduced to cultivation c1930, it is named after Lady Beatrix Stanley, the formidable editor of The New Flora and Silva magazine. £5 for 5 from Jacques Amand

Iris 'Katharine Hodgkin'; flowers late Jan; height 8cm

You can take subtlety too far and you may feel that perhaps this iris has. It is a weird colour, navy-blue feathered and spotted on a bluish-cream background, merging into yellow at the throat. But close to, it is extraordinary, so works well in a pot. Subdued and strange in its beauty, it was raised in 1958 by Edward Anderson of Lower Slaughter in Gloucestershire. He was a research chemist, but what he really liked doing was breeding iris like this one. He named it after the wife of his friend, Eliot Hodgkin, who had an amazing collection of rare bulbs at his home near Twyford in Berkshire. £4.40 for 10 from Bloms Bulbs

Avon Bulbs: 01460 242177, avonbulbs.co.uk; Jacques Amand: 01962 840038, livingcolourbulbs.com; Bloms Bulbs: 01234 709099, blomsbulbs.com

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Sport
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Sport
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam