Gardening: Plant soon and wait for spring: Small-species tulips don't have to be difficult. Anna Pavord explains how to select, protect and position these brilliant bulbs

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Wise virgins will already have sent in their orders for spring-flowering bulbs. Mine goes in next week - late for daffodils but in plenty of time for tulips, which need not be planted before the beginning of November. The tulip has a disobliging habit of evaporating underground rather than increasing, so you always need to order more.

That is no hardship, for few tulips are duds. In my record book, 'Must plant more' remarks far outweigh the disappointments. The lemon and ivory 'Ancilla', a kaufmanniana type that flowers in mid-March, was pretty nasty. So was 'Bento', described as carmine edged with white. 'Horrid,' I wrote. 'Muddy salmon. Scrappy plants. Cat? Weather?'

At first, I supposed that the small-species tulips would be more difficult to grow than garden varieties, and so avoided them. In fact, they have proved easier to keep, but that may be because I have grown them in a different way. The small bulbs can easily be planted in a group in a plastic half-pot 5in to 7in wide. Then you plunge the whole pot where you want the tulips to flower.

After flowering, when the foliage has died down, the whole pot can be lifted and dried off on its side in a cold frame. The next autumn, shake out the bulbs, replant them in fresh compost and plunge the pot again. On my heavy clay, the pot seems to ward off the underground slugs that feast on bulbs. And lifting a single pot is far less laborious than grubbing around for single bulbs.

It helps, too, if the species is planted on a small sloping patch, completely unshadowed. These tulips and various Anemone 'De Caen' start the season, with violas and pinks carrying on through the summer.

This year I added Brodiaea laxa, a bulb that produces loose round heads of blue star-shaped flowers, about 1ft to 18in high. Plant them in the autumn to flower in June. They are an accommodating variety because they produce very little by way of leaf and will spring up through grey mats of Achillea huteri and low-growing Geranium sanguineum striatum. They also last well in water.

Because these tulips are so much smaller than most other garden varieties, they require a position where they will not be swamped and can grow in full sun. They are happy among alpine plants, because both demand the same kind of environment. They also thrive in pots in a cool greenhouse (this is not an invitation to try them on the windowsill above a radiator).

T. bakeri is a cool mauve-purple, flowering in early March with a single bloom on a slender stem, usually about 6in tall. The leaves are bright, pale and slightly shiny, a characteristic found in some garden tulips such as 'Cantate'. The petals are long and spoon-shaped, the backs of the outer ones stained green. The inner petals have a well-defined green rib up their backs. Inside, a big basal blotch of yellow sets off the orange anthers. The species was first found at Asomatos in Crete and named after George Baker, the plant collector, who exhibited it at the Royal Horticultural Society in 1895. It is a wraith of a tulip, far removed from the beefy bedders of parks and gardens.

The bulk of the tulip species flower in April. T. batalinii usually waits until May. It is a little shorter than T. bakeri, the flowers a cool lemon with a dull olive basal blotch. First found around Bokhara in New South Wales, it was introduced by the Dutch firm, Van Tubergen. Last year I grew a type called 'Bronze Charm', which has an apricot-bronze flush over sulphur-coloured petals. 'Bright Gem' is similar. All are good, but not cheap. Avon Bulbs has them at around pounds 1.50 for five.

The cheapest species available is T. tarda, T. turkestanica and T. urumiensis. Cheap does not mean nasty. These tulips clump up quickly and are easy to grow. T. turkestanica is early, usually March, sometimes late February. It produces clusters of small flowers, sometimes seven to a stem, but they give a slightly muddy impression - indeterminate ivory. When you get down to the detail, they are as extraordinary as all tulips with the greenish bronze flush on the outside of the petals, their orange filaments and black anthers. But given the size of the flowers, this is a hands and knees job - not always where you want to be at the end of February.

The last of the species tulips to flower is T. sprengeri, a brilliant scarlet with bright gold anthers. It is the only species in this country that will increase by self-seeding, but it has to be in the right place. Oddly, it seems to favour shade. I was surprised this May to find it flowering deep inside an abandoned shrubbery in Lincolnshire. At Hidcote, the National Trust's garden in Gloucestershire, it seems to want to put itself at the back of the rose borders rather than the front.

You sometimes see this tulip recommended for naturalising in grass, but at pounds 6.20 for three (Avon's price) this is a ludicrously expensive and risky option. Try one of the cheaper cottage tulips instead. Naturalising may work in the eastern counties where growth is less rampant and ground generally lighter, but tulips would not survive in the lush patches of rough grass in our garden.

No tulips are native to England. One, T. sylvestris, has naturalised in the east of the country, though it is rare. Slightly shorter than T. sprengeri - usually not more than 10in high - it has brilliant yellow, egg-shaped flowers. The outer petals peel from the inner ones to form a three-pointed star around the core. It flowers in April and is sweetly scented, a characteristic more closely associated with yellow than red tulips.

Planting in pots for plunging, you can set the bulbs quite close together. With about seven in a 6in pot, you have only one hole to dig rather than seven. How deep the pot should be plunged depends on the soil and the situation. The general rule is that the lighter the soil, the deeper you plant.

I plant deep, at least 6in, though our soil is heavy (this has a practical advantage: you are less likely to spear bulbs on the end of your fork when weeding). Tulips seem quite happy with this treatment. Crocuses would not be. They become deeply discouraged if a ton of soil is laid over their heads.

If you plant bulbs directly into the soil, use a spade or trowel rather than a dibber. You need to make a hole without a pointed bottom, so that the bulb can sit properly. I always use bonemeal or hoof and horn to provide long-term food. If the soil is particularly disgusting - heavy and wet as it is in some parts of our garden - I cover the bulbs with compost, sifted from the heap.

Then all you do is wait. On the darkest of winter days, when the bus is late, the children obstinate, the rain unrelenting, you can dream of T. batalinii's elegant buds shifting, swelling, planning their escape from prison.

Bulbs of tulip species are available from Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE (0460 242177). A more limited selection is available from Walter Blom and Son Ltd, Coombelands Nurseries, Thurleigh Road, Milton Ernest, Bedfordshire MK44 1RQ (0234 782424).