Urban gardener, Cleve West: Bulbs and other bright ideas

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The Independent Online

A bulb catalogue that arrived in July is impatiently drumming its fingers. It knew it didn't have a hope of being flipped through back then, but now it knows that it's time. Dithering any longer will mean missing the ideal slot for bulb planting while the soil is warm enough for roots to establish a foothold. Procrastination is par for the course when it comes to bulbs. The main cause is the large window of opportunity for planting, any time from now (for early spring flowering bulbs) to late autumn (for late spring/early summer).

Bulb season, for the urbanite, can bring on mixed emotions. On one hand, there's the frustration that they cannot express the full range of colour, texture and form that each season has to offer - be it drifts in lawns, sprinklings under trees or jewel-like clusters in borders. On the other hand, because of their versatility and ability to perform in a container for a year or two, bulbs can be a lifeline for anyone spatially challenged. Carefully placed on terraces or even as a temporary showcase in a border, they can shine more brilliantly than on a larger canvas where their presence often requires a more considered approach with significantly larger numbers. In small gardens, regardless of any underlying smack of tokenism, bulbs are elevated in stature, marking and accentuating each season.

Some people like to layer bulbs in larger pots to bloom in succession. Crocus or snowdrops in late winter (top layer), dwarf narcissi in spring (middle layer) and tulips (bottom layer) for a grand finale in early summer. I prefer just one type of bulb in smaller pots that can be moved as and when appropriate. Whatever your choice, the key to successful pot-grown bulbs is good maintenance. Regular watering and a mulch of garden compost will compensate for restricted roots.

In our garden, the overriding 'greenness' of the space accentuates any colour, not least white, so just one small pot of snowdrops is enough to raise the spirits in the new year. I am less fond of crocus in isolation and usually rely on dwarf narcissi such as Cyclamineus 'Tête à Tête' or C. 'Peeping Tom' for the spring (curiously, although I'm a great advocate of using large plants in small spaces, the full-blown park daffodil seems crude and a waste of space in a town garden ). Tulips work well in pots and having used T. sprengeri at Chelsea this year, I will be unable to resist its charm; its vibrant red will enliven my garden until the end of May. As a contrast, I will add two plants I've never grown before: Muscari paradoxum, a larger-than-usual grape hyacinth with burnt-blue, green-tinged flowers, and the Cuban lily, Scilla peruviana.

The latter, an unusual and beautiful squill, with strap-like leaves and a corymbose head of many long-lasting deep-blue flowers, is nothing like the familiar carpeting S. sibirica, looking more like a cross between an agapanthus and an allium. Its common name casts doubt on its hardiness, but it actually originates from the western Mediterranean.

The confusion came about when the first bulbs came to England on a ship named The Peru and was compounded by the fact that it then naturalised in Cuba and other islands in the Caribbean.

I'm looking forward to having this gem as it's a plant that encapsulates the spirit of spring while easing the transition to the lushness of early summer. If you have space to put it in the ground, make sure it is not completely in the shade and that the sun can reach its leaves. Like most bulbs, it prefers a light, free-draining soil. But unlike most bulbs, it can go some way to being described as an evergreen, with just a short dormancy in July and August. This is really the best time to plant them, although they will invariably be sold with other bulbs between September and November. By then, the bulbs are likely to be showing good signs of growth. Get them into the ground as soon as possible with the head of the bulb just above soil level. The leaves will soon appear but it won't flower until May. Very handy for Chelsea and early summer flower shows.