The 'Paperwhite' narcissi planted at the end of August are already more than a foot tall. In a week or 10 days, they should be in bud. For me it's the starting point of a whole different gardening calendar - one that begins in autumn rather than spring. With a bit of juggling (though very little effort) I can now look forward to a long succession of flowers to bring in pots into the house.
The 'Paperwhite' narcissus open the season and take us through till Christmas. Then come hyacinths (January and February), hippeastrums (January until March), cymbidium orchids (February until the end of May), the gorgeously scented but tender Rhododendron 'Fragrantissimum' (late April into May) and vivid red sprekelia (late May).
Through summer, I'm picking sweet peas and finally at the beginning of this month brought in pots of the plant that has been through more name changes than a government department. It's now called Gladiolus murielae, previously acidanthera and before that Gladiolus callianthus. Stick with it. It's worth it: tall sheaves of leaves, like a gladiolus, and strong stems of nodding white flowers each with a purple eye. They are gloriously scented. They come into bloom at the beginning of September and nicely fill the gap until the first 'Paperwhite' appear.
Corms are available in spring, rather than autumn and you can easily cram 10 of them into a pot 28cms across. I use multipurpose compost and old terracotta pots. Leave the pots outside until the flowers are in bud and then bring them in to a sunny windowsill. They are tall, but do not need staking.
Last year, as an experiment, I tried planting out the potted corms after the flowers had died down. They came up this summer and flowered just a little later than the ones in the house. They are South Africans, though, and would be killed by a really cold winter outside. Last winter's mild weather suited them fine. 'Paperwhite' narcissi (which have been for sale in garden centres since the end of August) f give results quick enough for even the most impatient gardener. The bulbs are big, so I generally plant no more than seven in a 28cm pot. My favourite containers are old zinc tubs as wide as they are high, which I picked up in the Fens. They were used in the days when bulbs were a booming business in the Fens, but what for, I don't know. They don't have holes in the bottom, but if you are careful with watering, that doesn't matter.
When you've planted the 'Paperwhite' bulbs, water them and if you can, top off the pot with a layer of 6mm gravel. This looks good, keeps the growth clean as it spears through the surface and stops blackbirds tossing compost about, which they love to do. Then six weeks later, you'll get flowers. It really is that simple and that quick. Planting in batches, a couple of pots a week, you can keep yourself in 'Paperwhite' heaven for a couple of months.
Hyacinths aren't quite so easy and I've never yet had hyacinths in bloom for Christmas. The bulbs need a long period of chilling - 12 to 15 weeks - then another two to three weeks in the warm to force the flowers from bud into bloom. So unless you pot up the specially prepared bulbs as soon as they come into garden centres (usually at the end of August), you haven't much chance of hitting that Christmas target. But if you get hold of bulbs now, you can at least look forward to a blast of their heady scent from the middle of January onwards.
The difficulty with planting hyacinths in this late summer period is finding anywhere that's cool enough to provide the initial chilling period. I'm trying a new technique, stacking pots on the shelves of an old fridge, switched to its lowest setting. It's certainly dark in there, which is what they want, and cool too.
You can cheat of course, and I often do, by buying ready forced hyacinths in bud. Garden centres have them in early spring, big bulbs each bursting out of its own small square plastic pot, with the spike of bud just beginning to colour up. It's more expensive buying them this way, but tipped out of their plastic and planted up together in a bigger, more generous container, they motor on with scarcely a hiccup, though they don't last as long as hyacinths which you have started yourself from bulbs. In a cool situation, of course, they last better than in a hothouse. When they've come into bloom, don't keep them close to a radiator.
Plant the bulbs so that their noses stick up out of the surface of the compost. They can be close together, but shouldn't touch one another. Water them thoroughly and put them in whatever cool, dark place you can find. Some people bury them in the garden, but that's a fag. A cellar is good, or a cool attic cupboard. By the time the cool period is over, the roots should be well developed and the shoots at least an inch tall, with the fat spike of buds just showing.
Jan Pennings of Breezand in The Netherlands put on a superb show of hyacinths at Chelsea this year (held back for this, rather than pushed on) and has done a great deal to widen the choice available. In the 18th century, hyacinths were almost as much of a craze as tulips had been a hundred years before and gradually more of the colours and types available then are being re-introduced in fatter, healthier forms.
I'm mad about 'Woodstock', which is the colour of beetroot. The flared inside edge of the flower is deep amethyst, becoming purplish on the outside and towards the base. It doesn't make as chunky a spike as some other varieties. It's quite tall, slightly stringy and the individual flowers droop slightly on the stem, but the colour and smell are amazing. 'White Pearl' forces well and makes a perfect fat cylinder, no more than 25cms high. Planted on 20 October last year, I had it in bloom by early January, quite a fast turnaround for a hyacinth.
Some bulbous iris, crocus, narcissus and tulips (all available now) can also be forced to flower inside, but none of them are as successful as hyacinths or hippeastrum (which used to be called aaryllis ...). If you want to try, choose varieties that are naturally early and bring them inside just as colour creeps into the bud. Ten crocus will easily fit in a 15cm pot and need a chilling period of 10-12 weeks. Iris need 12-15 weeks and I've done Iris reticulata, both purplish 'Gordon' and royal blue 'Harmony'. But grown inside, crocus and iris go over very quickly. I prefer to keep them outside, just by the door, where I can still see them every day but where they bloom over a much longer period. Tulips I've never forced; the remorse would be unbearable.Reuse content