As the air chills deliciously and the first frost touches the ground, the gardener has to learn to look in two directions at once. Immediately outside, the glamour of autumn can be complemented by the colors and textures of late-season bulbs such as crocuses and colchicums. Yet, while we enjoy this finale, we must look ahead to next year’s new bulbs, for this is also the time for planting daffodils, snowdrops and tulips for the spring.
Many people don’t think of autumn as a time for bulbs to be in flower, but there are, in fact, a select number of easily grown and manageable ones such as colchicums that are well worth investigating.
I like to plant the pink colchicum speciosum in grass; the strappy leaves that appear in spring to replenish the fat bulbs can be safely and quite attractively allowed to bunch unobtrusively among naturalized spring-flowering wildflowers, then all the grass can be mown after everything has died back.
Colchicum speciosum “Waterlily” explodes into an astonishing burst of dark mauve petals, but the intricately marked Colchicum agrippinum, with its mottled-pink subtlety, is my favorite-although it is slightly less robust, so it will need a good site.
Strictly speaking, colchicums should be planted from earliest autumn when the bulbs start coming into the shops, but there is plenty of nourishment in their large bulbs, so if you can still find any on sale, it’s worth planting them and seeing what happens in a few weeks’ time-and in almost every case you will be rewarded.
Autumn crocuses such as Crocus speciosus, which is robust and reliable with lilac-blue flowers strongly veined in purple and the softer-colored Crocus pulchellus, all flower late, often in bloom well into November. They also naturalize well and, in my view, are at their best in the grass under trees, where their sweet-smelling flowers attract bees and hoverflies on sunny days. There are many good and equally hardly varieties, such as the white “Albus”, and the deep blue “Conqueror”.
Looking ahead to spring, the most exciting flowers to plant this autumn are undoubtedly tulips because bulb specialists are now selling exceptional varieties. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first exotic tulips in northern Europe, growers are busy producing different tulip styles from earliest times up to the latest available. I have a particular affection for the delectable pink-splashed white tulips known as Tulipa clusiana, named after Charles Clusius, the Dutch gardener who created a sensation when he introduced tulips into the botanical gardens at Leiden.
Over the past few years, there has been a rising tide of interest in early tulips and it’s well worth learning more about how and where to place them in the garden. I find it heartening that some of those tulips that delighted gardeners so many centuries ago are now available once more, and still have the power to move us. Tulips that are species, or very close to the original species, are slender and rather dainty, but quite hardy and grow well in a fertile, well-drained bed, preferably in a sunny position.
As well as clusiana there are starry yellow Tulipa tarda, which open their flowers very wide to expose their bright throats, and the beautiful milky-yellow Tulipa clusiana chrysanta, which has soft bronzed coloration to the outside of its petals. Also creamy yellow, the larger flowers of the batalini group of tulips tone softly with the grey-green of their foliage, especially in “Bronze charm”, which is lightly streaked with red-bronze markings.
Tulips that dramatically produce several flowers on one stem were favorites in the 17th century and are still much sought after (I often get enquiries about them from readers). These include Tulipa praestans “Fusilier”, which has fiery flowers hat look especially attractive grouped on a raised bed-for example, on a rockery or sloping bank.
The gold-colored tulip “General de wet”, which I grow both for its color and for its sweet, citrus scent, is another very old tulip variety. I love this along with the other yellows and oranges (such as the big-flowered “Golden Apeldoorn”, bright yellow “Bellona” and the orange multi-flower Orange Bouquet) among fresh, green spring foliage. The best combination for pinks I have so far achieved juxtaposes the stripy-leaved “New design” and pink and green variety of Tulipa viridiflora, Greenland, with the tumultuous, pink cow-parsely Chaerophyllm hirsutum roseum.
While tulips can be planted at leisure up until late November (they actually benefit from late planting), other spring-flowering bulbs such as daffodils, fritillaries (both the snake’s head and the imposing crown imperials), the twinkling daisy-flowered anemone blanda and snowdrops should be planted without delay. All will do well in pots and naturalize well.
Pots are important when experimenting with new tulips and daffodils-I often use them to try out a new variety, planting it out in the garden afterwards if I like it. This way you can observe them closely, and assess their color and height before you decide on integrating them into your garden scheme. It also provides you with an opportunity to experiment with unusual colors and shapes. The 10 browny-orange “Prinses Irene” I planted in a terracotta pot last year was a great success, and of the daffodils, I’d go for the bright gold but dainty “Alliance” and the paler “Quail”.
In pots, you can plant the bulbs close to each other (but not touching), and in several layers, in a good compost to make a dense, brilliant show. Rather than muddling different colors and types of plant, I find the most striking effects come from planting one variety all together, but I then move the pots around frequently, arranging them for best effect.