Purple patch: For a burst of colour next year, get thinking about bulb-planting now


Bad news. It is at this time of year, when we've finally seen some sunshine, that we must forget about tans and start turning our thoughts to wrapping up warm (ugh), going outside in the cold (yikes) and digging several hundred holes in stony frozen soil (blerg). Yep, it's bulb-order time again.

It feels almost impossible to do this sort of mental gymnastics. Twisting your head into the fresh-green tones of spring 2013 requires the sort of double-jointedness normally possessed only by fashion journalists. But do it we must, or we'll spend the late winter feeling regretful about missed opportunities.

And then there's the question of what to twist the mind to. One first rule is that small gardens (and that's what most of us have, being realistic) look better planted with a small palette of colours and a small number of different kinds of bulb. They are not antipasti, tempting though it is to order a bit of everything.

So, first things first, pick a theme – such as pale white with one highlight colour – and stick to it. It makes the whole process of choosing bulbs simpler and less time-consuming, as you can rule out a whole lot of possibilities purely for being the wrong hue.

Then follow through by checking you have a span across the season – starting in February and March with little daffodils and narcissi in whites and yellows, say, and moving through hyacinths, tulips, and finally alliums (above), with a big purple flourish around May. (It's only with these final flowers that you don't get any colour choice: these ornamental onions come in Jimi Hendrix-velvet colours only.)

Alternatively, you could opt for soft spring blues and yellows, using muscari the colour of a 4am June dawn, and bright daffs to evoke the sun to come. The really electric-toned muscari, such as M. armeniacum, are just a tonic, but also a proper bargain at £8.98 for 150 from jparkers.co.uk. These exhilarating flowers do a great job of spreading, so tens become hundreds.

If you really hanker after complicated colour schemes, however, it's best to bring in the experts. Sarah Raven's latest catalogue is full of wild confections such as parrot tulips in an ancient Dutch blood orange streaked with lime green. (Tulip "Orange Favourite" is £8.95 for 15 bulbs at sarahraven.com.)

But the most important lesson when planning your bulb planting is one I have learnt hard, and it has nothing to do with colours at all: the back-breaking work of stumbling out on a cold day to plant bulbs is heartbreaking if you have to do it all again the next November. Plus, to see your beautifully designed display come up just once seems like heresy. So, for a jewelled spring that returns the next year, get the right instrument to plant those bulbs at the specified depth, or possibly even deeper. Try a professional bulb planter with a long handle, and experience that relief that comes with having the right tool for the job.

Three to buy

Dark temptations

Avon Bulbs' Ruby Collection is an absolutely delicious mix of darker-coloured tulips, including "Recreado", a deep purple, and the tempting "Night Rider". 40 bulbs for £20, avonbulbs.co.uk

Clean up

Also tempting: the White Collection. Four different types of white tulips for a clean, restrained look from mid-April through to May. Very useful in a small front garden. 40 bulbs for £22, avonbulbs.co.uk

The ultimate bulb planter

From posh Dutch toolmaker Sneeboer, the ideal poky stick for getting those bulbs down to the right depth. £59.95, sarahraven.com