Shooting stars: A new book by Anna Pavord pays homage to the glorious bulb

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The Independent Online

Of all the things you can plant in a garden, I love bulbs the best. They don't provide form or substance. They rarely have good leaves or indeed any of the other steady attributes that gardeners are told to look for when they are furnishing a plot. But what fabulous flowers! Such complexity, such finesse, such gorgeous jewel colours.

I've spent the past four years writing about them for a new book, Bulb (see p67 for a reader offer) and all that time I had in mind a book like a jewel box, full of treasures. Wherever the pages fell open, I wanted the bulbs to sing out: "You've got to have me. You can't live without me". For that, you need brilliant photographs and Andrew Lawson provided them, an extraordinary gallery of crocus, lilies, fritillaries, iris, narcissus, arisaemas (and tulips, of course).

Whatever growing space you've got – pot, windowbox or gravel yard, sunny or shady, damp or dry – there will be a bulb to suit it. And whatever the season, some bulb, corm or tuber will have decided that this is just the time to perform. Conveniently for those who sell them, most bulbs also like time off. Having flowered, they store up the resources provided by leaf and stem and then lie low, dormant, until changes in temperature, or the availability of moisture, tickle them back into growth.

Nothing marks the passage of the seasons so well as bulbs. Our gardening year starts with snowdrops and aconites. By late February and March we're scuffling about looking for the first scrolled spears of crocus. Then come daffodils and tulips until by late May and June they are overtaken by alliums. Summer bulbs aren't perhaps used as much as they should be, but besides lilies, we could be growing tall white galtonias, eucomis topped with tufts of pineapple leaves and pink or white crinums. Although their leaves are far too beefy, the elegance of the crinum's swan-necked trumpet flowers blinds you to any fault in the foliage department.

For a nurseryman, the most difficult bulbs to supply are the ones that flower now, through September and October: belladonna lilies, chequered colchicums, autumn flowering crocus. They are too advanced in growth to be sent out with spring flowering bulbs, but haven't died back sufficiently to go out with summer flowering bulbs. Good suppliers such as Avon Bulbs (01460 242177, offer a separate delivery of these autumn flowering bulbs, sending them out in late August and early September.

The bulbs that are around now, heaped in their papery jackets in nurseries and garden centres, are mostly those that flower in spring. The first ones I buy are always 'Paper White' narcissus, simple to plant in pots inside, as they don't need a long period of dark, like hyacinths. In six or eight weeks' time, they'll be flowering and the smell is astounding.

But narcissus should also be among the first bulbs you plant outside. The longer the rooting time, the better the bulbs will grow and flower, so with daffodils it pays to plant early in September.

Some daffodils, such as N. bulbocodium, N. cyclamineus, N. triandrus and their cultivars prefer soil that is on the acid side of neutral. The Mediterranean Jonquils and Tazettas like slightly alkaline soil and need full sun where they can bake in summer. Most other daffodils like soil that is well-drained but not too dry. As a general rule, daffodils prefer moisture to drought, but the Jonquils and Tazettas provide the exceptions that are an inevitable corollary to any garden rule. Poeticus daffodils will most resent being out of the ground as the bulbs are rarely without working roots.

A north-facing slope may suit them better than a sunny one that dries out in summer. Mulching with very well-rotted compost (never fresh farmyard manure) after the leaves have died down boosts the fertility of the soil and helps to keep the daffodil bulbs cool.

The leaves of daffodils contain minute but razor-sharp crystals of calcium oxalate, which is why grazing animals, such as deer and rabbits, leave them alone (why have so few bulbs developed this useful defence?). So they are good for naturalising, especially if you use them in an area where you can leave the grass to grow long before a late summer cut. The grass disguises the noisy death of the daffodil foliage and allows species such as N. bulbocodium, N. cyclamineus and N. pseudonarcissus to ripen their seed and cast it about (in the wild, most species increase by seeding rather than by producing offsets).

But wherever daffodils are planted, the leaves must be allowed to die down naturally, a process that can take at least six weeks. Where daffodils are planted in a lawn, itchy gardeners are usually longing to mow the whole lot down too soon. Choose light-limbed daffodils for naturalising, species such as the Lent lily, N. pseudonarcissus, or 'Actaea' which looks wonderful planted in swathes under apple trees. In fine turf, you might succeed with the hoop petticoat daffodil, N. bulbocodium or try the easier N. cyclamineus which has petals swept back like the ears of a piglet fronting a storm. It is a very appealing trait. In general, most Division 6 daffodils derived from N. cyclamineus ('February Gold', 'Itzim', 'Jack Snipe', 'Jenny') do well in grass. They like growing cool, not hot. Avoid mixtures, which may be cheap, but are jangly to look at when the flowers come out in spring. Use masses of a few different kinds, not a few of masses.

As always, I've so many bulbs on order I'm dizzy with the prospect: baby crocus, iris (you can have iris in bloom for eight months of the year), grape hyacinths (try the sweet-scented, yellow-flowered one called Muscari macrocarpum), yet more alliums. And fritillaries. Though more deeply imbued with the death wish than any bulb I know, I can't stop buying them. Partly to blame is the memory of a bear's cave in Kazakhstan, where Fritillaria woronowii grew as thick as nettles. Next to it was a steaming pile of bear dung. Perhaps that is what my fritillaries need.

'Bulb' by Anna Pavord is published by Mitchell Beazley, £30. To order a copy at a special price, including postage and packing, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897