Bluebells, along with Aconites and Snowdrops, are among the few bulbs that transplant best while they are in leaf and growing: before, during or after flowering. Their treatment is fundamentally different from most spring flowering bulbs which are planted while dormant in the autumn.
With bulbs in the green, the active, flowering bulbs are dug up between February and April, and are sent to you in bundles of 25. "In the green" is not such an accurate description, it would be better to call them "in growth", because their foliage will often be quite withered and yellowing on arrival: this is normal.
Bulbs planted in the green establish and flower faster than the same variety planted in autumn.
You can see what you are doing because any other bulbs in the planting area will already be showing when you plant.
Therefore, 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 clearly see where you have already planted.
They are more fragile and 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.
Be prepared well before your bulbs arrive. Plan your planting area, remove perennial weed roots and debris, and enrich the soil with well-rotted manure or garden compost. Work it in thoroughly to a depth of about 6” (15cms). The more you do this in advance, the more time the soil has to settle back down.
When your bulbs arrive, carefully plant them to about the same depth they were at before lifting. This is easy to see: the soft outer tissues that were underground will be white. If in doubt, planting shallow is a better mistake than planting too deep, so if you can see a tiny bit of white peeping above the soil, that is good enough. There should be between 8-10 cm of plant below ground, on average.
Leave plenty of room between bulbs for them to proliferate and form clumps in the future. For Bluebells, that means about 10cm 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, rejuvenate it by dividing it at its most verdant. Replant the new bulbs nearby to create ever more spectacular drifts, or pot them up and give them away. Unlike other spring flowering bulbs, you achieve much better results by moving them in the spring, when they are plump and producing roots, than when they are dry in the autumn.
You may or may not lose out on this year's flowers, because the kerfuffle of moving is stressful for the plant, but you will definitely get a much better display next year. The other advantage is that they settle in vigorously, starting to subdivide and thus multiply one to two years before autumn planted bulbs would, which is ideal for naturalising in lawns or forest floors.
You must let the foliage die back naturally after flowering, so the planting area must be left unmown until all of the leaves are dead. In this way, the nutrients from the leaves and fading flowers goes down into the bulb and is stored ready to fuel the following year's flowers. If you cut or mow off the leaves early, you will weaken the bulb and thus the flowers next year.
Bearing in mind the extra conditions above, the same planting rules apply to autumn planted dry bulbs.
Aconites, Eranthis hyemalis, are related to the Buttercup and project that same intense, eyesnatching acid yellow colour, flaring out of a little ruff of vibrant green leaves. It is at its best in February, when there is little else of interest in bloom. Easy to grow, and a reliabile spreader, especially with your assistance. 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 whole over ground operation dies back, and eventually the withered leaves should be cleaned off. .
Hailing from the Balkans, Italy and Southern France, it prefers strong sun, making a heart warming in an open lawn in the early morning light. But it thrives in the shade as well, looking every bit as fiery, merely growing slower. Whether in unmown grass or a shady area directly under the canopy of deciduous trees like Sycamores and Horse Chestnuts, it can tackle otherwise typically barren wasteland spot. 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.
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 the yellow Aconites, but perhaps something other than the most common Mary and Joseph pink & blue types. Pop 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.
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 would be overwhelmed by the dominant Aconite, but the Snowdrop does just fine.
Snowdrops, single and double Galanthus varieties, grow from a tiny pear-drop shaped bulb and are remarkably tough, emerging around January, even from frozen ground. One anthropomorphises them as winter's turning point, when the most plucky of little things are the ones to risk their charming, tiny white petals in a world of blistering cold, foretelling the spring that is not yet, but shall surely come. E. A. Bowles termed them as “fairy light bulbs”, illuminating shady, dank parts of the garden, adding sparkle to open areas, always sprinkling horticultural magic.
There are many types of Galanthus, varying quite widely in size, ease of cultivation, and price; one 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, where the ground is reliably moist in winter, with a high leaf mould & leaf mulch profile, and thus unlikely to entirely dry out in summer. Imagine the white bark of Betula utilis Jacquemontii and ordinary Silver Birch, the Grayswood Ghost tree, surrounded by swathes of white Snowdrops for a stunning, dazzling white display on a grey February day. But then, any tree in winter will benefit from a carpet of snowdrops at its feet.
Underplanting 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 in nooks and crannies where they are easily visible; maybe close to where you park, or beside the front path and doors.
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, carpeting woodlands are one of the postcard famous natural wonders of the English landscape, shimmering blue beneath soaring elephant-grey tree trunks and a luminous green canopy above, glimpsed from the car as you whizz by, but best seen while following your dog on a walk, about which I honestly can't say who is taking whom for walkies anymore. The English Bluebell, in contradistinction to the Spanish, is under threat and needs conserving, a cri de coeur for all of us who have seen a proper British Bluebell wood in bloom.
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 unscented flowers all around its sturdy and upright stem. The thick leaves can be a strapping 3cm wide, and look much tattier for longer when they are waning. It has less aesthetic appeal, but much more oomph than our natives, and where the two come into proximity a fertile hybrid is spawned. These mutley mutants are often more vigorous than our pure English Bluebell and so could pollinate it into oblivion, reducing it to cloning underground only.
Preserving biodiversity is good when it comes to plants and bugs: by maintaining the purity of one species, the others that evolved together will not be jeopardised by a potential change. We take enormous care to source all our bulbs from commercial growers who collect their own seed and do not deplete any wild woodland stock.
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, but the point is that they love the leaf mulch year after year, it holds moisture well and slowly over time releases many nutrients.
Bluebells should really be confined to woodland spaces where they will thrive, and Beth Chatto's maxim of "right plant, right place" rings true, and because they look wonderful with other woodland champions like the male ferns, Dryopteris felix-mas or Drypopteris wallichiana. Their fronds will obliginly disguise the dying Bluebell foliage a few months later. ~
Geums are another companion, especially the paler yellow varieties that impress best from the shadows. In the absence of soaring Beeches, grow your them under deciduous trees like green leaved flowering cherries, Viburnums Opulus (Guelder Rose) or Viburnum plicatum mariesii.
They are deer, rabbit and squirrel resistant, so pretty much indestructible, and they return year after year with minimal maintenance - regular dividing by you is just a bonus for them.
For some variety, you can grow them in a pot in a shady place at first when they arrive, where they will flower really nicely this year, and then plant them out later right after they have flowered.