Gardening: Time to get those bulbs in

By Meg Liptrot

Spring plans are laid even as we brace for winter

Fritillaria meleagris' chequered colours stand out in the spring garden. Photo / Meg Liptrot
Fritillaria meleagris' chequered colours stand out in the spring garden. Photo / Meg Liptrot

I was like a kid in a candy store with all the bright, inviting colours of Easter bulbs at the garden centre. I couldn't help myself, and bought a much-admired Fritillaria meleagris, which I first set eyes on flowering in Larnach Castle's grounds in Dunedin. I saw the plant growing happily in a rock garden in semi-shade.

Its angular bell-shaped flowers are miracles of nature, with a remarkable burgundy and cream chequerboard pattern. I noticed Monty Don fancies them, too, after watching an episode of Gardeners' World which explored early spring at Longmeadow, his garden in England's West Midlands.

These bulbous perennials are native to South England, the northern Balkans and western Russia. They prefer well-drained, fertile soil which may require additional fine gravel and aged leaf mould.

Unlike England and Dunedin, Auckland and Northland are not naturally cold enough to grow cold-climate bulbs like this. Instead, we can trick them by leaving them in the fridge for a month or more before planting. This is called "vernalisation".

A friend of mine working at our local garden centre says she kept her Fritillaria bulbs refrigerated through to June, then planted them in a pot. The bulbs flowered well, but did not flower the following year, as she hadn't uplifted them in autumn to repeat the cooling process. If I don't have luck with Fritillaria meleagris, I've got back-ups, pale green Fritillaria pontic and F. camschatsensis (chocolate-coloured), which are almost as good-looking.

Tulips suit this cold treatment, too. I chose "Spring Green", which is white with green accents on the petals. You can try planting tulip bulbs on the cooler, south side of your property in a sunny spot, and, with Fritillary, in cool semi-shade. I'll plant both bulbs in pots, so they can more easily be identified and uplifted next year.

Our garden's tricky dry spot is a dust bowl after the drought. It has a mix of smallish established trees including Tarata/lemonwood as shelter on the south boundary with its lovely white bark, and spring-flowering pale pink Magnolia stellata for seasonal interest. There are a couple of blossoming fruit trees and a small feijoa hedge. This is the west-facing side, which also gets late afternoon shade from the fence.

In summer, most of the area bakes and dries out but, in winter, the sun doesn't penetrate it as much. The leaves drop from deciduous trees so light gets in, which is why it is suitable for spring flowering bulbs. I call this our "shades of white" garden, as the only ground cover which does well here is the grey-green foliaged white-flowering Renga renga lily "Matapouri Bay". Bulbs love good drainage, dappled light to full sun, and an area where you are happy to leave them for the long haul. If your bulbs are happy, they will multiply year after year. You can lift and divide them, and plant clumps elsewhere to increase your spring display. At the garden centre, I picked up Teucrium fruticans to fill out the space below the feijoas as a soft, low-growing, silvery hedge.

Before planting, I worked in a binful of mature compost through the white garden, plus a little lime and organic fertiliser which contains beneficial micro-organisms and rock dust minerals. Incorporating compost into very dry soil helps water soak in, rather than be repelled off the surface.

There is a little island around our apple tree bounded on all sides by paths. This spot is hot, dry and has shallow soil. I picked Pimelia prostrata "Blue Peter" and Nepeta faassenii "Snow Flake" (white summer-flowering catmint) to go with the existing variegated liriope.

On planting the soft small-leafed Pimelia ground cover, our border terrier decided it was the perfect cushion and plonked himself on it. Luckily it is hardy, so I have high hopes it will do well. For this spot I chose dry-loving bulbs South African native Lachenalia "Romaud" (pale yellow pendulant bells) and hardy Tritelia "Wisley Blue" (pale lilac/blue star-shaped flowers).

There is a long strip of soil below the olive tree where I'm waiting for two Vireya rhododendrons ("Cream Serene") to fill the space. Meanwhile, I've planted dwarf Gladiolus nanus "Albus" bulbs in clumps along this strip for spring flowering, plus the bushy perennial Dimophortheca "Lemon Sorbet" with its daisy-like flowers and interesting pinched petals for summer colour. The yellow Lachenalia and Dutch Iris bulbs "Tiger Eye" and "Lion King" should flower around the same time in late spring. As their names suggest, the irises have mottled yellow throats blending to brownish rose to regal purple. Potted bearded irises will be moved there once the Dutch irises have had their day in early summer.

- Herald on Sunday

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