Bulbs for an early show

Having early flowers in the garden really lifts the spirits and there are several flowering bulbs that perform in the first weeks of the New Year. Place these where you can see them from the house in a suitably warm and sheltered location. Form small clumps to make a greater impact on the eye, rather than spreading them out. You could use snowdrops and these include the single form of Galanthus nivalis,or the double which is known as ‘Flore Pleno’. Singles open in good light, but doubles always look open even in dull weather - although they aren’t as elegant. For a bolder snowdrop, with wide grey leaves, opt for Galanthus elwesii and you’ll also get boldly marked white single flowers. Add the little known grey-blue Scilla mischtschenkoana, which flowers at snowdrop time, showing up well against bare earth. This will flower in shady positions too.

However most contenders for the ‘Race of the Year’ prefer an open sunny site. The very early Crocus sieberi subsp. sublimis f. tricolor is a jaunty little bulb that’s quite capable of popping through snow. The three-way flowers contain yellow, white and purple and from a distance it appears as a purple egg cup containing a broken egg. Use this en masse round the feet of fruit trees.

Other early arrivals to the springtime ball include Cyclamen coum, another sun lover for an open spot, with jaunty short-stemmed flowers nosed in magenta. The rounded foliage can be silvered, marbled or green and, after flowering purse like seeds pods form. The sticky coating on the seeds is attractive to ants and they distribute the seeds for you as they roll them around for you.

There is one foot-high narcissus that can also flower very early in the year, N. 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation’, and this should be grown in a key position at the corner of a path or by a doorway, so that you can enjoy it. This all-yellow daffodil will return year after year, and it’s well named - sensational and early.

The last contender for the ‘Race of the Year’ is the winter aconite, which needs a warm position to open early. It can thrive under deciduous trees, helped into early flower by the benign woody canopy ahead, or it can flower against a warm wall. It’s a great bee favourite and spreads by seeds scattered from star-shaped pods.

Planting Tips

The general rule of thumb is to plant all your bulbs at least twice the depth of the bulb. Wear gloves if you have sensitive skin because some bulbs do irritate the skin (particularly hyacinths), and always wash your hands afterwards as they are often treated with a fungicide.

When planting a border, avoid any straight lines unless it’s in a cutting garden. Randomly throw them on the ground and plant where they land. This looks far more natural. If it’s a large area and you have a small child, you can copy the famous Miss Ellen Willmott of Warley Place in Essex. She placed the small child in a wheelbarrow with a sack of bulbs and pushed it along whilst they showered the ground with bulbs.

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