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How to plant bulbs in pots - a beginner's guide

Tulips in pots
Tulips look particularly effective when you use block colouring - mixing too many colours can ruin the effect Credit: Christopher Jones

Looking to add a pop of colour to your garden? Nothing brightens up a garden, balcony or roof terrace more than a pot packed full of spring bulbs. Plant them now for colour early next year - so much easier than trying to tackle a whole garden. If you're looking for inspiration or advice, we have compiled the below guide on everything you need to know about how to plant colourful bulbs in pots.

What to look for

Garden centres and nurseries are now awash with snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, tulips and huge Dutch hyacinths. Before you buy check they are dry, free of disease and not damaged. When gently squeezed, each bulb should be as firm as a fresh onion. Try to find the fattest you can - you will get bigger and better flowers.

Before you buy daffodils, give the bulbs a gentle squeeze - they should feel as firm as an onion Credit: Jason Ingram

Spacing

Temporary displays break all the rules of spacing. So ignore the packet instructions and cram in bigger bulbs such as hyacinths and tulips, leaving only an inch (2.5cm) or so between each. Overcrowding will eventually spoil the flowers. So, once your display has finished flowering, remove the bulbs and store them in a cool dry place to replant the following autumn.

Layer planting

Combine bigger bulbs such as daffodils with smaller crocuses and grape hyacinths by planting in layers. First plant the bigger bulbs (the daffs) at the correct depth and fill the container up to the top. Then simply push the smaller bulbs (the crocuses) down into the compost, making sure they are covered by at least twice their own height in soil. The number of layers does depend upon the size and depth of the container. To start with, try just a couple of layers and then add more next year when you get the hang of it. Just remember to give each bulb an inch (2.5cm) or so of space on either side.

Daffodils

We all love daffodils because they are tough, adaptable and will grow almost anywhere. Plant them en masse in a simple terracotta pot for a bold statement. For large golden yellow trumpets in late February choose 'Dutch Master', 'Golden Harvest' or 'King Alfred'.

Double-flowered favourites (with big showy flowers) include 'Golden Ducat' or the white 'Ice King' which both appear slightly later. If you want scent grow jonquils such as 'Sun Disc' or 'Suzy'. You can increase the lifetime of the pot by planting an early-flowering daffodil such as 'Bravoure' with a later-flowering variety like 'White Lion'. Edge them with dwarf yellow narcissi ('Tete-a-tete' for example) or the white spring crocus 'Joan of Arc'.

Tulips

Extensive breeding has produced hundreds of different coloured tulips. Reds include 'Brilliant Star' and the sweet smelling 'Dr Plesman'. Both are single early tulips which flower in mid-April. They are ideal for containers as they aren't too tall and stand up well to nasty British weather.

For late-flowering types choose the near-black 'Queen of the Night', 'Maureen' (white) or 'Clara Butt' (salmon pink), which flower in early- to mid-May. Plant them in large wooden barrels or tubs but don't mix too many colours together - it just muddies the overall effect.

Summer bulbs

The Stargazer Lily is a good summer bulb Credit: Barbara Neal/BarbAnna

Think even further ahead and plant some bulbs to flower in summer. Lilies are a good bet. Try the Regal Lily (white/pink in bud) the Easter Lily (white) and oriental hybrids such as 'Stargazer' (white-edged pink) and 'Crimson Beauty' (red-striped white) which will give large fragrant blooms. Do read the packet as the depth of planting does depend upon the rooting habit of the variety; those that root from the stems need to be planted more deeply than usual.

How to plant

Nothing could be simpler. All bulbs like well-drained soil so, whichever container you choose, always ensure there are good drainage holes in the base. Or add a layer of broken terracotta, coarse gravel or polystyrene chunks to the bottom of the pot.

Many bulbs also demand soils rich in organic matter. Peat-free multipurpose compost is ideal but mix in some well-rotted garden compost or leaf mould if you have it.

To be certain that your bulbs are deep enough plant them at a depth of twice their height: if they measure 2in (5cm), cover them with 4in (10cm) of compost. Fill the container to the appropriate level, place each bulb on the compost with the nose facing skyward and fill to the top of the pot, leaving a 1-2in (2.5-5cm) watering space.

Firm gently and water well. Then just pop the container into position and wait for spring.

Bulbs that will flower indoors

Daffodils, narcissi, hyacinths, lilies and amaryllis all make good houseplants. Treat these just as you would the above. When you can see that they are about to flower bring them into the house. Make sure to water them regularly, especially if the central heating is on.

This article was originally published in September 2003.