Bluebell woods are one of the natural wonders of the English landscape, shimmering blue beneath soaring elephant-grey tree trunks and a luminous green canopy above, usually glimpsed from the car as you whizz by on some errand. And, in a small way, you can recreate the same thing in your garden by acting now.
Bluebells, like Aconites and Snowdrops, are among the few bulbs that actually transplant better while they are in leaf, before during or after flowering. So their treatment is fundamentally different from most spring flowering bulbs which are planted when dormant in the autumn.
With bulbs in the green, the active, flowering bulbs of the species named above are dug up between February and April and are sent to you in bundles of 25.
There are pro’s and cons of course:
Bulbs planted in the green establish and flower faster than the same variety planted in autumn.
You can also see what you are doing because any other bulbs in the planting area will already be showing when you plant.
Equally, bare patches where there are no bulbs will be obvious and do not need marking at flowering time.
Once planted, their leaves are above ground so you can see where you have planted and you won't double plant.
The downsides are that because the green parts of the bulb are still functioning:
They are more fragile than dried bulbs and so need careful handling
They should be planted in their new location as quickly as possible. No hanging around for a week or two
They can be kept unplanted for a few days as long they are kept cool and dampened daily – ideally with rainwater – using a spray.
So ‘Be prepared’ is the watchword here. Before your bulbs have arrived, you need to have planned your planting area, removed perennial weed roots and debris and enriched the soil with well-rotted manure or garden compost. Work it in thoroughly to a depth of about 6” (15cms).
Then, when your bulbs arrive, carefully plant them at about the depth they were at before lifting. This is easy to see as the soft tissues that were underground will be white. Plant them so that the soil covers the white bit and no more! If in doubt planting shallow is a better mistake than planting too deep. There should be between 8-10 cm of plant below ground.
Leave plenty of room between bulbs for them to proliferate and form clumps in the future. For Bluebells that means about 10 cm between bulbs and for Aconites and Snowdrops about 6-8 cm. About every three years, or when you see that a clump has become overgrown and congested, stir it up a bit by dividing it at its most verdant and replanting the resulting bulbs to create spectacular drifts and to keep your original stock strong and healthy. You achieve much better results by moving them in this way in the spring when they are plump than by planting the dormant, dried bulb in the autumn, unlike other spring flowering bulbs.
You may lose out on this year's flowers because the kerfuffle of moving is stressful for the plant, but you get a much better display next year. The other enormous advantage is that the bulbs settle in much more quickly and will start to naturalise by subdividing and so increasing in number at least one to two years before autumn planted bulbs.
Location, location. When choosing where to plant, the same rule applies as with autumn planted bulbs. You must let the foliage die back naturally after flowering so the planting area must be capable of being left unmown until all of the leaves are dead. In this way, the nutrients from the leaves and fading flowers find their way back down into the bulb where they are stored ready to fuel the following year's flowers. Cut or mow off the leaves early and you will weaken the bulb and will jeopardise your chances of having flowers next year, although you may have a tidier looking garden! At Ashridge we supply four types of bulbs in the green: Aconites, English Bluebells, and single and double Snowdrops.
Aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are related to the Buttercup and project that same intense acid yellow flower that catches the eye so well. Around each plant is a little ruff of vibrant green leaves. It is a surprisingly underrated plant considering the time of year that it is at its best - February - when little else of interest is out. The ease with which it can be grown and its reliability should determine its popularity. Like many bulbs, the Aconite times its active growth and flowering to when there is no overhead canopy from any deciduous trees. As the tree leaves develop and cast their shade the flowers die back and eventually the leaves will disappear too leaving the roots intact for next year's flowers. Hailing from the Balkans, Italy and Southern France you would expect strong sun to be essential and they do make a heart warming, splendid sight in an open lawn in the morning sun. But they will also set fire to the light grass and shady area directly under the canopy of trees, even those such as Sycamores and Horse Chestnuts, places that normally remain barren wastelands. Unlike Daffodils, Aconites never come up blind, they just increase every year as their mat of roots becomes more interconnected and their seeds are spread around the garden propagating yet more plants.
Apart from creating lovely golden pools of colour under deciduous trees Aconites can be used in various situations. Allow about 60-75 bulbs per square metre and then consider some of the following ideas. Pulmonarias flower before their leaves develop and at the same time of year as Aconites. Stick to the blue ones which look stunning with Aconites....but perhaps avoid the more common Mary and Joseph pink and blue types. You could also consider popping Aconites in your borders to provide a jolt of colour in early spring; their unsightly dying leaves will then be hidden by neighbouring perennials like hardy geraniums or asters later in the year. They also jolly up the base of flowering hedges which are yet to be interesting - Philadelphus, Viburnum and Amelanchiers all fall into that category. But perhaps best of all, the gold of Aconites and the pearly white of Snowdrops makes for the perfect partnership. Both thrive in similar shady, slightly damp environments and they do not out-compete each other. Slower growing bulbs like Crocuses or other tubers will be overwhelmed by the dominant Aconite but the Snowdrop does just fine.
Snowdrops (Galanthus varieties) grow from a tiny pear-drop shaped bulb and are remarkably tough, emerging in January from frozen ground. One anthropomorphises them as plucky little things risking their pearly petals in a world of blistering cold to charm us and foretell imminent spring. E. A. Bowles, writer on all things garden termed them as “fairy light bulbs”, a description so apt for their way of illuminating shady, dank parts of the garden or adding sparkle to more open areas and in both, sprinkling a little bit of horticultural magic. Although most people imagine that a Snowdrop is a Snowdrop there are in fact many different types of Galanthus, varying in size, ease of cultivation and, of course, price. One single bulb of Galanthus plicatus ‘E A Bowles’ sold on eBay in 2011 for £357 only to be trounced in 2012 by Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ which sold for £725 to Thompson and Morgan! They prefer the dappled shade of deciduous trees too where the ground is reliably moist in winter and is unlikely to entirely dry out in summer. Imagine the white bark of Betula utilis Jacquemontii or even just the ordinary Silver Birch, the Grayswood Ghost tree, surrounded by swathes of white Snowdrops for a stunning, clean white contemporary look on a grey February day. But any naked tree would benefit from the distraction and hopefulness of a carpet of snowdrops at its feet.
Underplanting several trees will soon mean that as the Snowdrops naturalise into the open away from the tree penumbra, each colony will link up to connect different parts of the garden via a river of silvery white.
Snowdrops also lend themselves to a smaller scale, so you can plant them where they are easily visible; close to where you park, beside the front path or maybe outside the kitchen window. Allow about 75 Snowdrops to a square metre. Perhaps my favourite combination in a border or, even better, spilling down a bank, is the wonderful Christmas or Lenten Rose (Helleborus orientalis or H. niger) with its variously plum purple to creamy round flowers and large serrated leaves set against the slight leaves and perfect, slim pure white Snowdrop flower. The result is so beautiful as to deserve its own special winter area. Snowdrops will emphasise and draw attention to other winter interest plants: the Dogwoods spring to mind, especially the whippy red stems of Cornus Alba Sibirica or Cornus Sanguinea, pink flowered Viburnum Bodnantense or the intense yellow of Witch Hazel or Forsythia. In all of these situations both the straightforward, single Galanthus nivalis and its double version, Galanthus nivalis Flore Pleno, are your best bet being the most reliable and hardy on the market. What is more, Flore Pleno flowers a little earlier so you will extend your snowdrop season if you mix the two together. Both bulk up and naturalise effortlessly over the years so a small investment now will reap plentiful dividends later.
English Bluebells (Hyacinthoides non scripta). And then you need to save some space under your deciduous trees for some of our English Bluebells. This is not a Brexit inspired moniker; the English Bluebell, in contradistinction to the Spanish, is under threat and needs conserving, a cri de coeur that can hardly fall on deaf ears when you see a proper English Bluebell wood. The English Bluebell is a more delicate thing than its Continental counterpart, with bell like flowers whose tips curl right back and which line up only on one side of the stem so that the whole thing nods elegantly into a graceful arch. The flowers have a sweetish scent and creamy anthers and pollen. And that uplifting violet-blue colour is incomparable. The leaves are also narrower, which is useful when you cannot tidy them up until they have all died back. The Spanish version is a paler blue and may include the odd pink or white sport, with flowers all around its sturdy and upright stem with no scent. The thick leaves can be a strapping 3cm wide. Worryingly, the Spanish version has less aesthetic appeal but much more oomph than our bluebloods and so where the two come into proximity a fertile hybrid is spawned. These are often more potent than our pure English Bluebell and it could mean that the English Bluebell becomes a rarity, or worse, a thing of the past.
Preserving biodiversity by maintaining the purity of species is vital because where you lose flora, you will lose fauna too. The two evolve together and to lose one jeopardises the other. So we take enormous care not to deplete woodland stock. Your bulbs are grown in fields specifically for harvesting and replanting.
Late April to May is Bluebell time. Traditionally they grow under Beech trees, just as the brightest leaves begin to be seen in the canopy above. And Bluebells should really be confined to woodland spaces partly because that is where they will thrive and Beth Chatto's maxim of "right plant, right place" rings true but also because they look wonderful with other woodlanders like the male fern, Dryopteris felix-mas or Drypopteris wallichiana. Pleasingly the fronds then disguise the dying Bluebell foliage later in the year. Geums are another companion, especially the paler yellow varieties that seek shade in order to impress. And in the absence of soaring Beech trees, grow your Bluebells under deciduous trees such as green leaved flowering cherries, the Viburnums Opulus (Guelder Rose) or V. plicatum mariesii. And the truly reassuring thing about Bluebells is that they are deer, rabbit and squirrel resistant making them pretty indestructible and they will absolutely return year after year. A last, and perhaps perverse word in light of the above, is to suggest, that you grow them in a pot in a shady place for this season and then plant them out when they have flowered. They will then have done two jobs for the price of one.
Our bulbs in the green are available to order from January onwards and will be sent out as they are lifted from mid February onwards. Please just remember, that, as ever, it is a case of first come, first served....