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
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Property search
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

Urgently looking for Qualified Teachers and NQT's

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Urgently looking for Quali...

Year 5 Teacher

£21000 - £32000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 Teacher Would yo...

Teacher

£100 - £120 per day + key stage 1, key stage 2: Randstad Education Chelmsford:...

Data Analyst

£30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable software house is looking ...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried