25th April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

In the garden

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WRITING about spring bulbs, corms and tubers in mid-November may strike some of my readers as a bit late, especially as the gardening publications tend to deal with this subject in August.

I consider this a perfect time. It’s certainly too late for the larks, those gardeners who rise at dawn, get their bulbs in the ground the minute they take them home and, in all likelihood, have already done all their Christmas shopping.

This offering is for the owls among you and, as is often the case, was prompted by several reader enquiries concerning their bulb-related lateness. There must be hundreds of bulbs, bought in September or earlier, still lurking in porches, vegetable racks, and in one case, an underwear drawer, as the reader in question was stuck for a cool, dark place.

There’s only one place in your home that keeps bulbs in perfect condition, and that’s the fridge – turned to its highest setting. Elsewhere they will start to dry out, shrivel and eventually rot. Bulbs like fritillaries and lilies are at the greatest risk because, unlike crocuses or daffs, they lack the mac.

Most bulbs wear a more or less waterproof jacket, which helps them, once they’ve been lifted from the ground, to preserve the vital moisture stored in them. This, and cold storage, will keep them in mint condition for a while, but starts letting them down once they arrive in the shops – or your home.

Lilies, fritillaries and eryth­roniums have no protective tunic and should, in my opinion, never be allowed out of the ground for more than a few days. Suspended on those garden centre carousels in plastic bags with a bit of sawdust in the bottom, they’re like fish out of water.

Fritillaries and erythroniums in particular are impossible to establish successfully once they’ve been subjected to this treatment. Despite feeling rather sorry for them and tempted to come to their rescue, I’ve long since learned to give them a wide berth. Some, sadly, are already in a sorry state when they reach the shops – limp and shrivelled.

When it comes to bulbs in general, and the three genera mentioned above in particular, mail order is my preferred option, for it affords the gardener a greater level of control. Rather than having to buy when shop supplies dictate, I can specify when I want my bulbs to arrive, ie. when I know I have time to deal with them. Furthermore, having spent no more than three or four days out of cold storage, they always arrive in a plump and healthy state.

November is a perfect time, not only for the arrival of goodies, but also great for snapping up some late bargains (it isn’t always the early bird that catches the worm). Several mail order companies I deal with reduce most of their stock from now on, often by as much as 50 per cent. It pays to choose carefully. Go for individually packaged offers, rather than mixtures, as the latter often contain substantial quantities of the least popular varieties. Put in the ground, or dealt with in other ways – more on that later – they soon develop new roots, and given our mild winter climate, won’t be far behind those planted a month or two earlier when in comes to performing in spring.

Bargains can also still be found in shops and garden centres, but my advice is to err on the cautious side. Examine the offerings carefully and thoroughly, squeeze the individuals hard, and leave those that don’t resist the pressure of your thumb and forefinger on the shelves. Inspect tunic-less individuals at close quarters for minute specks of blue-grey mould or patches of soft, brown rot. Those are liabilities rather than bargains.

But what about those sad, neglected bulbs you already have? Give them the same treatment, and discard any that have begun to rot. This, in my experience, always leaves a few borderline cases to be dealt with.

I’m thinking of lilies, and the rarer Fritillaria species. If they’re precious to you, and you are not among the faint-hearted, you could resort to surgery, a useful skill to learn.

Let’s take your lilies. More often than not, soft rot affects some of the inner scales once the outer ones have been allowed to dry out. First remove all dead roots with a sharp knife. They are easily distinguished from the live ones by their darker colouring and soft texture.

Remove the shrivelled outer scales and discard them, then cut or break off as many scales as necessary to reach the rotten bits. Do this just above the root plate. Cut off and discard all scales that show signs of decay. In the worst case, if the rot reaches right into the heart of the bulb you’ll be left with just a few plump, loose scales. In the best scenario, you still have a bulb, much reduced in size.

Ideally, once you’ve reached this stage, all should be liberally dusted with flowers of sulphur. Alas, this useful commodity, especially recom­mended for fungal infections in bulbs, has now been taken off the market. It is still available from chemists as far as I can ascertain, but you probably have to apply for a special licence in order to obtain some. Failing this, you could give your dismantled lilies a fungicidal spray, just in case there are still a few spores lurking, planning a fresh attack.

Now comes the good bit. Every scale you’ve severed is capable of growing into a lily bulb, given time. Put the scales, mixed with damp sand in a clear plastic bag, tie, and hang in your airing cupboard. It can take up to six months for a tiny bulb to form at the base of the scale, and at least three years before it is capable of producing flowers, but the sense of achievement you’ll feel when that day comes will more than compensate for your efforts and patience. Pot up your babies in late spring, and place them in a sheltered place outdoors.

Any bulbs remaining from the slaughter should be firmly set onto, rather than into, well-drained, sandy compost. This allows them to grow new roots, while you can keep an eye on them for any signs of further trouble. Keep them in a cool, well aired place, then plant them out, or pot them up in spring.

Fritillary bulbs are naturally divided into two halves, joined together at the root plate. If only one half is affected by fungal disease or shrivelling, simply break it off and discard. Small rotting patches can be cut away cleanly with a sharp knife and the remainder treated with a fungicide. Then proceed as for lilies.

Erythroniums only occasionally respond to this treatment, but it is still worth doing if the species is a rare or expensive one. Bury a third of the fang in damp sand, making sure it’s the fatter, more rounded end, and keep your fingers crossed.

Just in case you were wondering, yes, it is a very good idea to buy your lily bulbs in autumn. They tend to be in more plentiful supply during spring, but by then the majority have been out of the ground for at least six months; even cold storage has its limits.

All my new lilies are grown in pots for their first year, in a mixture of leaf mould, sand, well-rotted horse manure, and garden compost. Not only does this ensure stupendous displays, the bulbs also increase well, which means the following autumn I can have my cake and eat it, by planting out the surplus, and potting the rest for another year.

Many bulbs, especially if they’ve been compromised in any way, don’t take kindly to wet, cold soil, and the resulting losses can be unacceptably high. Much better to pot them, individually or in small numbers, in loam, rather than peat, and keep them from getting saturated by the elements until they have developed a good strong root system.

This approach also has an advantage when it comes to designing plantings. Unless one has great powers of visualisation, as well as X-ray eyes, the ideal placing of spring bulbs can be a problem. I can never remember exactly where what is growing in my garden, and pushing the trowel into one of those deceptively empty spaces in autumn, more often than not, means slicing through bulbs already in residence, but invisible below ground.

Good gardens are distinguished from the mediocre by their plant combinations, and those are best achieved while the subjects in question are in flower. I always remember a television film about Beth Chatto’s garden, where she spent considerable time walking from border to border with bunches of mixed cut flowers in her hand, holding several up to prospective neighbours before deciding on the perfect matches.

Some of my best gardening days each year are spent wheeling a barrow load of pot-grown flowering spring bulbs around until I’ve found the best setting and most conducive company for them. I have tried in the autumn, closing my eyes, imagining colour combinations, but it never works quite the same.

Rosa Steppanova