Every so often I have the unexpected experience of meeting a genuine gardener who has never bought a bulb. "They seem a bit scary," says the owner of four acres in Hertfordshire dotted with unusual trees and shrubs, sheepishly. "I start reading the catalogue and there's too much choice, then I give up."
My friend is right – bulb catalogues and websites can be confusing. There is a huge range to sift through. So bulb companies came up with the idea of selecting choice set-piece collections of bulbs that work together. These range from the garishly pink to the pale and interesting. But do the collections offer good value? And more importantly, which are the best?
I have to say that after spending some time scrutinising the full range of what's on offer, I feel faintly underwhelmed. Many bulb companies don't offer any help at all to the beginner buyer. And of those that do, the combinations often verge on the twee.
But there is the occasional burst of good sense out there. A fine and inspiring place to start is Broadleigh Gardens (broadleigh-bulbs-autumn.co.uk), whose collections are smart: they won't look out of place when you finally move to Chelsea. Or Chipping Camden. It offers seven "pot" collections, which simply need to be planted in compost, with perhaps a bit of granular plant food to see them through flowering season.
Broadleigh has a pretty "Pot collection number 4", with little yellow narcissi and the pale-blue stars of Anemone blanda, which works out at £7.95 for 36 bulbs, filling a large pot. Slightly more Mediterranean, featuring azure "Blue Spike" Muscari and the pale yellow wild tulip, is "Pot collection number 2", for £8.75. All these bulbs are star performers and suitable for the least competent host to bung them in.
Let's say for argument, though, that you have no intention of moving to Chelsea, and that pale blue and yellow seems a bit too Hermés scarf for you. For dramatic displays in full-on burgundys and purples, try Sarah Raven (sarahraven.com). Her "Dark Rich-Coloured Tulip Collection" also includes the turbo-charged "Orange Favourite" as a colour foil, and is £20.95 for 45 bulbs. Her "Venetian Tulip Collection" (£15.95, 45 bulbs), too, has those deep colours streaked with peaches and pinks, which could cheer up your 2011. Worth remembering also that these collections could also be planted in full sun at the allotment, and brought home as cut flowers in dowdy early spring.
Finally, there's Avon Bulbs (avonbulbs. com), whose "Early Riser" collection of the very smallest bulbs will start flowering in the depths of winter and last till April – little bluey-white crocus, tiny miniature irises and pretty creamy yellow daffodils, with 75 bulbs for £19. They are best planted in containers so that they can be lifted up for some admiring attention.
If you'd rather put together a collection yourself, here's three great combinations
In the Still of the Night
Partner the "Black Hero" double form of purply-black tulip "Queen of the Night" with "Maytime", a paler mauvetulip, and "Mount Tacoma", a low, double-flowered white, for stylish and theatrical effect. £17.50 for 30 bulbs, avonbulbs.co.uk
Bright and Beautiful
Last year I planted Barbie-pink hyacinth "John Bos" (right) with little yellow "Tete à Tete" daffs and some postbox-red "Ile de France" tulips, which brought a smile to my face daily. £10.95 for 23 bulbs, blomsbulbs.com
The White Album
Try "Avalanche", a lovely early white narcissus with amazing perfume, with hyacinth "White Pearl" and stunning lily-flowered tulip "White Triumphator". £17.40 for 23 bulbs, dejager.co.uk
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