Emma Townshend: 'If you didn't plant your bulbs last autumn, fear not: there is a short cut'

If you neglected to do a bulb order way back in September, it's time to consult your local garden centre or nursery, says our gardening correspondent

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It's the moment for tiny green shoots, for buds and tips, tingling with growth. It's the moment for being outdoors, finally, and even more momentously, without a coat on. No matter, we find ourselves thinking, if we have to spend the whole of April suffering showers. Right now, in March, the sun is shining, and the rest of it can go hang.

Of course, as soon as everything is growing, everything also needs trimming. Cutting back, tying in, tucking behind. But while all these jobs need doing, at the same time, make sure there's some icing on your cake. For me, that has to be bulbs. Fine to have that blast of yellow from the earliest daffodils, but as the month progresses, I want flame-like colours or heart-lifting Barbie pinks from tulips, hyacinths, whatever I can lay my hands on.

Quite predictably, many of us neglected to do a bulb order way back in September. Or perhaps you did order bulbs, but didn't get round to planting them, and there's a slightly stinky bag hanging out by the wellingtons that you haven't quite steeled yourself to chuck yet.

But don't feel too miffed with yourself. Either way, there's still a chance to rectify the omission. Although this is one particular problem that you can't straighten out on the internet: you'll need to consult your local garden centre or nursery, and see what they've got going on; or, if you lack specialist help, try a DIY shop: the big sheds will have tulips planted for display. Even my supermarket is doing it. Not just tulips, either: the other day, I clocked that they had tubs of five fat alliums "Globemaster", and the fantastic, stylish claret and green of fritillaries.

What you'll find that you can get delivered are great pots. Many times this spring I have already cast my covetous eye over Crocus's terracotta Lucca pot, which has an easy, jaunty, continental air to it (£79.99 for a pot 60cm diameter). Scarlet and white tulips, I'd be going for here, with sky-blue forget-me-nots or deep-blue lobelias covering their bases. Or for something a bit more industrial, look to Crocus's galvanised planters, which could be paired with grey-green grasses to make a strong backdrop for orangey-red tulips (starting from £14.99 for a large planter).

One thing about buying the relatively expensive option of bulbs in flower is that you can check that what you buy is healthy. Look for fat green leaves, flushed with spring, and ignore plants that are already forming flower buds on spindly stems: they've been rushed into growth and won't prosper.

When making up pots from bulbs already in full growth, don't bother trying to disentangle the roots before settling them in. This is not in their best interests. Focus instead on trying to transfer them from the plastic pot with as little disturbance as possible, tucking them in tightly and snugly, so they keep their balance, then simply water and feed.

Now, depending on your plans for the summer, pay attention to what you plant around your bulbs – plugs of Verbena bonariensis, for example, would lift the blues mentioned earlier, for a soft gauzy purple display once full summer arrives. Alchemilla mollis, on the other hand, has a tangy lemon-greeniness that sets off reds and purples with gusto (both plants £14.97 for six 9cm pots from Crocus).

But, in the end, this doesn't have to be a pricey time. Of course you're risking your wallet when you venture into a garden centre in spring, but one small 10cm pot of narcissi from Ikea has been making do by my front doorstep for weeks. The tiny nodding golden heads have cheered us up every morning as we set off outside; and all for £3.99.

Planning ahead: A campaign of colour

Lily of the Valley

The perfect early summer fragrance – fill a pot with this flower for future treats. 3 for £9.98; all plants here from crocus.co.uk

White tulips with pale-green hellebores

No classier combination than this one, which works well in a formal setting either side of a door. Helleborus niger, £5.99

Red tulips with a central postbox-red geranium

Pick the plants up at your local DIY shop, then fill one of Crocus's sea-blue-green pots, in Aqua, for £12.99

Deep-purple tulips with Patty's Plum poppies

This outrageous poppy will charm you with its hippy handkerchief skirt, continuing the tulips' purple beautifully. 3 for £11.98