Bargain plants and making bulbs last from one year to the next can reduce the cost of gardening.
Top tip: bargain plants
Garden fetes, plant tables at school fairs and pop up plant stalls outside people’s homes offer a great opportunity to buy locally grown, tried and tested plants. Bargain plants! These may be rooted cuttings, established plants or leftover seedlings and young plants grown in local gardens. Prices are usually competitive, funds may go to good causes and – just as important – these plants are growing near you and are likely to thrive in your garden.
Other year-round sources of bargain plants include garden centres that offer plants just past their best at reduced prices, and I have many of these ‘casualty corner’ plants thriving in my garden. But beware the dried up, tired and feeble looking plant whose roots are bursting out of the pot and which, frankly, does not look as if it will live. It won’t be a bargain if it dies soon after you plant it at home. But shrubs and perennial plants that are just past their peak are a great bargain, and it is often a better time to plant them rather than when they are about to burst into flower or fruit.
Top tip: make bulbs last from one year to the next
Flowering bulbs are planted while they are dormant and grow underground to give us fantastic flowers as varied as allium, crocosmia, daffodil, gladioli and hyacinth. Look after your bulbs as they grow and they will reward you with flowers from one year to the next.
Water and feed
Make sure the soil around bulbs in pots doesn’t dry out when the bulbs are showing leaves and flowers, and for at least six weeks after they flower. The soil should feel moist, not wet, to the touch.
Apply a general-purpose fertiliser, such as Growmore (35g per square metre/1 oz per square yard), to bulbs in your borders during late February to encourage bulbs to flower well in the following season. In pots, apply a liquid high-potassium feed, such as tomato fertiliser, from early spring until six weeks after flowering ends.
Deadheading and cutting back leaves
Cut back dead flowers to the base of the flower stalk. Six weeks or more after flowering is over, cut back leaves that are yellow, brown and straw-like. It’s an old, bad, habit to tie or knot the leaves after the flowers are over. The leaves feed the bulbs for more flowers next year – give them the best chance to stun you with their flowers.
Lifting and storing bulbs
There is a lot of debate about this. If you want, or need, to lift and store bulbs, only do it once the leaves have died down. Then, use a small fork to ease the bulbs out of the soil, taking care not to damage them. Clean the bulbs, trim back roots with secateurs and remove outer loose, flaking layers. Only keep good sized, healthy bulbs (looking like ones you might buy) because damaged or diseased bulbs will get worse in storage and affect others. Dry the bulbs in an open tray in a shed or garage for at least 24 hours before storing them in labelled paper (not plastic) bags, cardboard boxes or nets in a dry, cool place.
The RHS advice is to ‘lift and store bulbs where this is practical’ and to leave in place bulbs in grass, borders or containers where they are underneath, and coming up through, shrubs or perennials. But read on about tulips – the special case in bulb circles.
Tulip bulbs need special care
Most bedding type tulips won’t flower year on year unless they are lifted, dried and re-planted. Follow the advice for other bulbs until they their leaves have turned yellow (about six weeks after flowering). If you have to move them sooner, put the bulbs and foliage loosely in trays until the leaves become yellow and straw-like. Clean the soil off the bulbs and discard any that may be diseased or damaged. Make sure the bulbs are completely dry before storing in trays or nets in a warm, dark well-ventilated place 18-20°C (65-68°F) before replanting in the autumn. Even after all this, another year of flowering is not guaranteed so plant the old bulbs in the less important beds, borders and containers in your garden and the new bulbs in the most conspicuous areas.
Within the tulip family, dwarf species (such as Tulipa kaufmanniana, T. fosteriana, T. greigii and their hybrids) often flower year on year without lifting, and only need to be lifted to divide when overcrowded. And in warm soils, where the bulbs can be baked in summer, some species may flower from year to year and possibly multiply.