Bulbs are fairly easy to grow, but get them in the ground in autumn for their spring show.
Bulb heavyweights include daffodils, freesias, tulips, hyacinths, bluebells, and Dutch and Louisiana irises, but don’t forget these shadeloving beauties: dog’s tooth violets (erythronium), grape hyacinths (muscari), snowflakes (leucojum) and ipheion.
Louisiana irises are marginal plants that like to paddle at the rim of a pond or stream, but they'll grow well in a garden bed if given adequate water. The range of colours is the broadest of any iris groups, and includes many patterns and blends as well as solid colours.
The snake's head fritillary ( Fritillaria meleagris) bears nodding, chequered bells that vary from dark maroon to pure white. They're pricey to begin with, but when planted in moderately rich, moist soil that's well drained, they'll happily multiply. They grow well in pots too.
Bluebells are well suited to the meadow look, but the woodland style conditions they need to thrive requires you to have deciduous trees widely spaced because the bulbs need light to bloom. Spanish bluebells are more common in New Zealand than true English bluebells.
Most bulbs can be successfully grown in pots – planted above are white fritillarias, white grape hyacinths and ranunculus – but they must be kept in a cool place before planting for best results.
For tulips to do well in a container, you should chill the bulbs in the fridge for at least eight weeks before planting out in May. An insufficient cold period results in either no flower or flowers on short stems. Keep pots in a cool, shady spot for several months to allow for good root development. Water should be kept to a minimum too – just enough to keep the soil moist. Bring into strong light and then direct sun when the first shoots appear and water more frequently. In warmer areas, water regularly when flowering or the plants will shut down. Watering keeps the roots working hard and also keeps the soil cooler, allowing a longer growth period and better bulbs.
If you've forced your blooms indoors, planting them out in the garden can be a bit hit or miss. Unlike bulbs planted in the ground, forced blooms have been through a pretty exhausting process. Bulbs like crocuses and daffodils which easily naturalise have a good chance of reblooming the following year if planted out once they've finished flowering (just don't cut the leaves off). Feed and water them, then wait until the leaves die down. Tulips are unlikely to rebloom. Hyacinths may, but they'll probably have smaller, less robust blooms.
CUT TULIPS FOR INDOORS
The stems of tulips continue to grow in water, and the flowers bend towards the light. Hence tulips tend to flop once you get them indoors. If you can be bothered, you can straighten the stems by wrapping them in wet paper and standing them upright with a light directly above. Or you can try pricking the top of the stem, just below the head, with a pin. The hole allows air to escape, which expedites the water flow to make the stems more turgid.
GROW A THYME LAWN
Chamomile, thyme and Corsican mint ( Mentha requienii) all work well as groundcovers, with chamomile and thyme making excellent lawn substitutes. Both require a sunny spot with freedraining soil, although chamomile will tolerate light shade. Clay soils will work, so long as you improve the drainage first. Grit, sand or pumice and organic matter should be dug in to a depth of at least 15cm before planting. Thyme is droughttolerant and produces masses of purple, pink or white flowers in spring or summer, depending on the variety. Plant a single variety en masse or a selection of different varieties to produce a patchwork effect. Or plant thyme in between pavers.