Bulbs make rather good houseplants, albeit temporary ones. When grown in a clear glass container without soil, so that the developing roots can also be seen, they can also be an excellent way to get children interested in plants and gardening (the white roots on show also have a light, fresh appearance). Layering several bulbs between compost will mean a longer-lasting display because the lowest bulbs will take longer to get to the surface and flower. For a maximum-impact display, single layers of bulbs can be packed in the pot so that there is hardly any compost visible.
Generally, bulbs are best used in a temporary indoor display and then planted out into the garden once they have finished flowering. In autumn, plant bulbs into a pot of multipurpose compost. Keep the container moist, but not wet and in a cold or cool place (ideally outside). Once the leaves start to show, keep in plenty of light. Bring into its display position once the flower buds have formed; the cooler this spot is, the longer the flowers will last. Keep well watered. A fertiliser is not necessary. Once all the flowers are finished (remove spent flowers if there are more still to come) plant the bulbs in the garden or dispose of in the compost heap.
A classic bulb planted alone in a pot and bought for Christmas displays. Usually red or white flowers, sometimes with several per stem. Leaves appear after the flower spike.
- Very free flowering – each bulb will yield multiple stems – the mix comes in a wide array of dazzling colours.
A couple of these flowers will be sufficient to scent an entire room. Available in a range of colours and shades. Traditionally, hyacinth are bought as forced bulbs for indoor display. A popular variety is Hyacinthus orientalis “Blue Jacket”. This navy-blue hyacinth is a bulbous perennial bearing dense, upright spikes of fragrant, bell-shaped flowers with purple veins in early spring.
Specific daffodil varieties have been developed that are ideal for either forcing (such as “Paper White”) or small pots (“Tete-a-tete”). Small and miniature daffodils make good spring-flowering, bulbous perennials for both indoor and outdoor displays.
The sweet fragrance is best appreciated up close, and so a pot or two of these small flowers are worth growing. It is even possible to cultivate saffron in a bowl, using Crocus sativus bulbs. Spring-flowering crocus are indispensable dwarf perennials as they bring a welcome splash of early spring colour into the garden.
Minute variations of green patterns can appear on a snowdrop petal, but even the most basic form, G. nivalis, brings a welcome sign of spring. A popular variety is Galanthus elwesii. This robust snowdrop is a bulbous perennial that produces slender, honey-scented, pure white flowers in late winter, above the bluish-green foliage.
The simple form of the tulip flower works both in isolation (a forced bulb in a single vase) and in a group. Dwarf forms are available for small spaces, but many of the varieties will not flower again for the following year. A popular variation is Tulipa clusiana. This yellow-flowered lady tulip is a bulbous perennial which flowers in early- to mid-spring. The star-shaped flowers, tinged red or brownish-purple on the outsides, are produced in clusters of up to three per stem, above the linear, grey-green leaves.
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Most flowers which can be forced have flower embryos already formed within buds, scales or tunics ready for emergence when they receive the right amount of heat and moisture. If these flowering initials are not present, then no amount of forcing will produce a flower.
Some plants have a relatively uncomplicated programme. Lily of the valley, for example, can be brought into flower at any time of the year as long as the rhizomes are chilled immediately before subjecting them to warmth. Many spring-flowering bulbs will behave in the same way and can be brought into flower early by artificially simulating a season at the wrong time. Daffodil and tulip bulbs are subjected to cooling treatment, and hyacinths to heat treatment, which results in their flowering weeks before untreated bulbs.
Hyacinths, daffodils, crocuses and several tulips can be mildly forced by plunging them in a cool place after planting to let them develop an adequate root system before they are forced by heat. To do this plant the bulbs as soon as they are obtainable in pots or containers. Use ordinary potting mix if the pots have drainage holes; if not, use bulb fibre which contains charcoal. Plant the bulbs with their tips at the surface of the mix. Ideally, they should then be buried in the garden under 15cm (6in) of soil or ashes with each pot wrapped in newspaper.
If this is not really possible, then they should be kept in an unheated cellar, cool cupboard, or cold frame, wrapped in newspaper to exclude light. If the containers were well packed and the mix well-watered beforehand, the bulbs should not need any attention until about eight weeks later when they should be checked to see if they have pale shoots protruding about 2 to 5cm (1 to 2in) above the surface of the mix. The buds of tulips or hyacinths must be well clear of the neck of the bulb before they are brought into subdued light at a temperature around 10C (50F).
Water as required to keep the mix moist. When the leaves are green, and the flower bud can be seen swelling inside them, move the bulbs to a warmer room to hasten flowering. Once the bulbs have finished flowering, the flower heads (not the stalks) should be removed, and the bulbs should be planted in the garden to recover. It may take a few years before they flower well again in the garden and they should be allowed at least three or four years to recover fully before forcing is attempted again.
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Mix different bulbs in assorted containers for a springtime display. What are your favourite bulbs? Which ones make you smile?