Summer flowers in garden centres are so tempting at the moment, but late frosts may damage summer bedding planted outdoors too soon. If this weekend leads you to thoughts of summer flowers in your garden, get ahead with summer bulbs instead.

Depending on how tough they are, summer flowering blubs can be planted in autumn, spring and early summer. Now is a good time to plant lilies and gladioli, and my favourite, the Abyssinian gladiolus 'Acidanthera bicolor' (now called Gladiolus murielae), which has fantastic scent and - like lilies and gladioli - is also a favourite among cut flowers.

Summer flowers - plant lilies

Lilies need deep, rich, fertile and well drained and neutral or slightly acid soil. If your garden soil is shallow and sandy or chalky they won't do well. There, you can plant them in pots or dig and fill a deep hole with lots of multi purpose or well rotted garden compost. Lilies grow well where their roots are in shade but the rest of the plant is in sun – ideal in a mixed border between shrubs and other plants providing shade.  Plant the bulbs at a depth three times their height. EXCEPT Madonna lilies which like their tops protruding slightly from the soil (and also like chalky soil).

Plant lilies in pots

For three or four bulbs (5-8cm / 2-3in diameter) you will need a 23-25cm (9-10in) diameter pot. Add a 5cm (2in) layer of broken crocks or large gravel in the bottom to allow for good drainage. Fill with a soil based John Innes number 3 compost, with some horticultural grit and ericaceous compost mixed in. If you choose a lime hating lily (such as Lilium auratusm or speciosum) use only ericaceous compost. Plant bulbs about 5cm (2in) apart. The depth at which you plant them depends on the variety:

  • Asiatic lilies root from the base of the bulb and should be planted at a depth equal to the height of the bulb.
  • Lilium formosanum, lancifolium and longiflorum roots from the base and the stem above the bulb and should be planted with their bottoms facing down roughly two and half times their height. So these lilies need a deeper container than Asiatic hybrids.
  • Madonna lilies (Lilium candidum) shoot from the top and should be planted with their tops showing above the compost.

Summer flowers - plant gladioli

'Glads' look great in groups of 3 or 5 or more behind other plants so their flowers stand tall and elegant. For a succession of flowers, plant a few corms every 2 weeks about 5cm (2in) deep. ‘Butterfly’ gladioli grow to about 45cm (18in) high and don’t need staking but the taller old fashioned gladioli will need staking. The corms should be lifted out of the ground after flowering ends and stored somewhere dry and cool and replanted next spring.

summer flowers

Red gladioli and white lilies decorate St Saviour's church and and inspire summer pots and borders. Maigheach gheal. Geograph.

And here's an easy alternative!

Lilies won't work for you and gladioli are too fussy for you?  But you like their tall spire effect?

Plant crocosmia instead! These are tough plants growing from nobbly corm or tuber like roots. The tallest and most spectacular is possibly ‘Lucifer’ growing to 1m (3ft) in deep, firey orange-red flowers. There are other colours and sizes to choose from. These can be invasive, and their bright sword leaves and brilliant flowers make that a bonus in my patch!

summer flowers

Summer flowers - Crocosmia 'Lucifer' is easy and striking in any garden, here mixing in with purple aster. Thanks to Jonathan Billinger.