..and bulb blues

One of the truly great, anticipation-charged moments in the garden year looms.  The first of the bulb catalogues has appeared.  What’s on offer are brown, flaky, often ugly or even grotesque little packages of life, very nearly guaranteed to alchemically transform into big, fat, glorious flowers of unsurpassable colour.  They’re horticultural hand-grenades, or floral fireworks, totally unprepossessing and deceptively inactive, until they explode.

Given my enthusiasm, it must be vexing for the producers of these catalogues, like the astonishing one that Marcus Harvey produces from Hill View Rare Plants in Tassie, or the gobsmacking one that has just appeared from Lambley, to get so little money out of me.  The truth is that I hardly buy any bulbs.

The problem is finding or thinking of garden locations or contexts in which I could grow their remarkable offerings.

The most obvious place to locate bulbs is in gaps in a garden bed.  This is tricky in a new or young garden like mine, or in the gardens I design, which are new by definition.  The trouble is that plants are yet to even nearly fill their allotted space, and current gaps probably wont be gaps in a year or two.  In this very scenario, the Paris I wrote about a couple of posts back(desirability rating ~ 11/10) was nearly killed by a pittosporum (desirability rating ~ 2/10).  The same round clipped pittosporums have, in their remarkably rapid growth,  swallowed up Nectaroscordum bulbs I grew from seed,

many Narcissus ‘Tete a tete’, countless Brodiaea, and at least one clump of the fabulous terracotta coloured Oxalis massoniana.  It’s not hard to think about how I could have prevented this – I could have moved the bulbs as the threat arose, I could have kept the shrubs better clipped, I could have designated more space to the shrubs in the first place – but the fact is that I (and gardeners far better than I) often don’t think about this until it’s too late.  Furthermore, gardeners tend to be afflicted with dangerous  – even florally fatal –  levels of optimism, often thinking stupid stuff like ‘Maybe I could get away with squeezing a few arisaemas in that eency little gap..’.

Planting around herbaceous perennials avoids some of these problems.  If they’re winter or spring bulbs they usually flower before there’s any bulk on the cyclical growth of the perennial, and most perennials swell to produce massively more top-growth than the size of their grown at ground level, so there’s plenty of bare soil around each crown early in the season.  You’ve got to be much more careful planting bulbs around perennials that shoot and bulk-up early, like sedums or miscanthus.

The best bulb-companions of all are those that spread a long way from their crown and seasonally cover up a lot of bare soil – things like the large catmints (which from a 30cm crown can cover about 3 sq m of bare soil), or the herbaceous geraniums.  But even this is problematic in a new garden.  I tend to do a lot of fine-tuning of perennial placement, and shift things around a bit for the first few winters at least, and carefully placed bulbs invariably end up in inappropriate and potentially life-threatening (to the bulb, not the gardener) positions.

It’s therefore sometimes three or so years before I think of tickling bulbs in amongst a new planting of shrubs or perennials.

Having said that, when things are settled enough and you get it right, bulbs can add a whole new floral season and layers of delicious complexity to plantings of perennials and shrubs.  One day soon I’ll be seriously in the market.

It’s often easier in a new or young garden to try and use bulbs in a meadow or rough-grass context.  I wrote about this in an earlier post, and I’m keen to experiment further (especially since seeing Lambley’s range of Camassias in the latest catalogue).  But these locations are always limited.  There may be plenty of grass – I have more than I know what to do with or care to mow – but it’s really got to be grass that’s thin enough, or sufficiently non-vigorous to allow for the growth of the bulb.  In Australian gardens this is often only achieved under or around deciduous trees where shade for 6 – 8 months of the year results in thinnish grass growth, or in places where soil is very shallow, possibly over shaley rock, where severe dry over summer prevents

grasses from developing a thick sward.  In my nearly one acre of grass, I reckon I’ve got maybe 20 – 40 sq m that is capable of hosting bulbs.  Couple this with the very small range of bulbs that can potentially thrive in this competitive environment, and you’ll understand why this needs to be carefully orchestrated, and why the bulb suppliers aren’t likely to extract thousands out of me.  Yet.

When contexts are literally thin on the ground, many bulb tragics wind up growing them in pots.  There’s a whole lot of advantages to this, and a whole lot of sense.  Collectors tend to buy small quantities of a large range of bulbs, and putting one or two only of any rare bulb into the rough-and-tumble of a garden setting is clearly asking for trouble.  Bulking up their numbers in pots is an obvious survival strategy.  It also means that you can provide the soil that any particular species might like, and the amount of water, and at the right time of year, that any species demands.  But I’m a garden man, rather than a plant man, and I don’t see a lot of point unless I have enough of any one bulb to put

the pot on display, or unless they’re planted in a lovely pot.  Furthermore, I’m severely lacking in the nurturing gene, and am a shocker for neglecting pots and letting them dry out at critical moments.  I just can’t trust myself.

That’s why I won’t be spending heaps on bulbs this year.  But I can still drool over the catalogues.  And I’ll still probably buy more that I ought..


  1. I think of bulbs and I think of precious winter colour.

    1. Yeah Pat – you make a good point. So much of what is thought of as spring colour in the Northern Hemisphere translates to winter colour for us. All the better!

  2. Just discovered your blog….live up in subtropical climate so limited with the bulbs I can grow….we are experimenting though!!

    1. Yeah, that’s going to be a tough climate in which to replicate any of the stuff that we long to do down here. But I’m fascinated by the work and enquiry of Mat Murray from Sydney Royal Bot, who in his previous garden in Sydney found that he was able to grow and flower bulbs previously thought impossible by sourcing seed from bulb colonies much closer to sea level, which tend to be better adapted to milder winters. He also found, for instance, that mid-winter-flowering crocus were more tolerant of his climate, as they completed their life-cycle before the heat set in. Apologies to Mat for this appalling and probably inaccurate precis of a conversation that occurred about twenty years ago, but no matter how inaccurate, you’ll get the point that new info and possibilities are opening up all the time. Mat lectured on this in Sydney recently, and is going to be doing so in Melbourne next year. Bring it on!

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