Cook up a ‘bulb lasagne’ to serve in spring
Alice Vincent learns the art of container plant layering, to add a succession of colour to her balcony in six months’ time
In Maida Vale, west London, is a garden centre that looks like a wedding venue. Clifton Nurseries has swoon-inducing greenhouses brimming with house plants of a size suitable only for very large houses. Outside, neat parades of annuals lead to a chic café. Needless to say, it’s a bit smarter than my usual hang-out. However, I was on a mission: to learn the dark art of planting containers that, come spring, are fit to burst with meticulously orchestrated patches of different kinds of bulbs. I’ve been planting bulbs in containers for the past three years now, but have had measured success in spring.
While my efforts lead to the occasional surprise crocus or half a dozen hardy tulips, the bulb lasagne (the process of planting a series of bulbs that bloom at different times to get the most out of one container) has always ended up as more of a ready meal than a banquet.
So it was down to Paul Todd, one of Clifton’s gardeners, to take pity and show me how it’s done.
The first thing Paul presented me with was a piece of paper with a diagram of what we were planting where. Rather than the deep containers I usually rely on, we were planting up a beautiful wide and relatively shallow dish with six different types of bulbs, divided into two different layers according to how long they would take to bloom.
Paul had marked out the two different planting depths on the inside of the container to clearly show where to plant the bulbs. Already, these two steps showed me where I had been going wrong: if you want precise results from bulbs, you have to be precise from the outset – especially in a contained space.
Next it was time for drainage, boring but essential for getting the best out of plants that have to bloom after the wettest, coldest part of the year. The container we were planting up had a hole in the bottom but we added crocks and then a solid inch or so of Hydroleca – lightweight clay pebbles borrowed from the house plant section to aid drainage (a handful of large-grade gravel or more crocks would also work). Then it was in with normal multipurpose compost up to the first marker.
Before we started planting, Paul recommended we throw in some sea-kelp-based plant food. This, he explained, was a better option than bonemeal for urban gardeners, as it’s less inviting to the foxes that scout around outdoor spaces (albeit not four storeys up on the balcony), digging up plants. We used Maxicrop organic plant Cal-Sea-Feed fertiliser, and put in a small handful across the soil.
First to go in were crocus, ‘Tête-àtête’ daffodils, bluebells and fritillaria,