Bulb time!

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Growing bulbs in pots with Ann Nicholas

Spring starts early in Ann Nicholas’ colourful Auckland garden. From July through September her spring flowering bulbs, all grown in pots, are the stars of the show.

“I love that bulbs are the first colour you see in late winter, reminding you that spring is not too far away” says Ann. “They come and they go quickly, telling you the seasons are moving, so it’s time to get into the garden.”

A lifetime gardener and nursery industry professional, Ann loves experimenting with plants. Container gardening is one of her specialties.

What are some of your favourite bulbs for growing in pots?

Freesias because of the scent! Once they start coming out, I move them closer to our patio doors so the scent wafts inside on a warm spring day.”

Daffodils because they are so bright and joyful as winter finishes. There are so many colours and forms. I ve packed pots with just one colour with the golden yellows like Carlton or some of the fascinating big doubles which are stunning like Dick Wilden. I find this better than mixing varieties as you get them all coming along together.”

Hyacinths - I pack these bulbs close together in smaller pots so when they start to come out I can bring them inside and the scent wafts through the house.”
“I also plant crocus in small flat bowls so you can look down into the flowers. They don t last long in a pot, so you can place them where you can most appreciate them and move them out of the rain to protect the flowers, so the display lasts longer.”

Tulips are fabulous for their amazing range of colours and forms. Once again, I tend to plant them by colour to make a statement. One year we planted up black and white theme using the stunning dark coloured Queen of Night. Tulips are pretty fast to grow, flower and finish in Auckland so I prefer them in pots to the garden as the bulbs tend to not like our wet winter Auckland soils, so pots are perfect for them.”

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned when growing spring flowering bulbs in pots?

“Use a good quality container mix. A good quality mix will have good drainage which bulbs need, plus some fertiliser.”

“Match your bulb to the pot. Make use of different pots, not just terracotta. You can be quite inventive with bulb containers, as long as they have drainage holes.”

“Be prepared to move your pots. I found those little trolleys to put under my bigger pots which are ideal for this. Bulbs make a bold statement when they are in flower but once finished you can quickly move the pot.”

“With the pots I m keeping for the following year, I put them under a hedge around the back of my garden, pot and all, so I don t need to lift the bulbs. Here they get less water reducing the chances of the bulbs rotting. When they start to appear the next season, I ll bring them out into the sun.”

Do you have a preference for a particular shape, size or style of pot for bulb planting?

“You need to match the bulb size to your pot size. So small flowering bulbs such as Crocus and Hyacinth require smaller pots whist tulips need mid-sized pots and Daffodils larger pots. Mainly so they don t fall over and damage in the wind.”

“As for style, I ve tried all sorts of pots from traditional terracotta pots to decorative blues for daffodils through to an old copper coal bucket that looks fabulous planted up. Really you can use anything as long as the size is proportional to what you’re going to grow in it.”

Do you ever plant in layers?

"If I m doing a mixed pot of bulbs I will layer so that the bulbs sit at the right depth.”

Do you keep your bulbs for a second year?

“Some I do and some I don t bother. I think this really depends on where you are in NZ as the climate dictates how well your bulbs will do the second year. I live in Auckland so I don t keep tulips as I don t have space to chill them prior to planting. I do keep freesias as I find they do really well up here and get better every year.”

What do you feed your potted bulbs?

“I put a controlled-release bulb fertiliser in when planting and use a good quality planting mix. If I m storing the bulbs for next season, I feed again after the flowers have finished.”

Do you treat your bulbs in any way before planting?

“If they have come from a reputable bulb supplier such as Fiesta, who I get mine from, then they have done all the preparation work for you so you can immediately plant them.”

Do you grow bulbs for displaying indoors?

“Yes! I grow Hyacinth for indoors, for their scent. The miniature daffodils like Jet Fire, Golden Bells and the unusual frilly double, Rip Van Winkle are ideal put into smaller pots to be brought inside whilst flowering. Especially if you plant them into a decorative style container.”

What companion plants would you recommend for planting with bulbs in pots?

“They need to be small flowered things so you don t detract from the bulb flowers. I only companion plant larger bulbs like Daffodils and Hyacinth and usually just to soften off the edge of the pot so I ll use things like Alyssum. I have also used Viola and Pansies and tried to match them to the bulb colour.”

Growing bulbs for picking with Alison Watts

Tulips, ranunculus, anemones and other flowering bulbs are the heroes of Alison Watt’s fabulous spring bouquets. When the professional florist needed of a reliable supply of organically grown flowers for her new business Bee and Bloom, she decided to grow her own. Four years ago, baby son in tow, she set up her first little flower farm on her sandy 800 square metre section in Kapiti.

A recent move to Tasman for husband Brody’s career, hasn't fazed this flower lover. Last autumn she got stuck in, planting hundreds of bulbs in raised beds, which Brody helped her build in their rented backyard.

What are your favourite spring bulbs for picking?

“Tulips! An absolute must-grow spring flower, nothing shouts spring more than a big bunch of bright and cheery tulips. They last for up to two weeks in the vase and come in hundreds of varieties. Each season I grow at least two new varieties to trial them for stem length and colour. I also grow anemone in large numbers. Their delicate nature and vibrant colours always take my breath away.”

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned when growing bulbs?

“As a cut flower grower and florist I've learnt to grow what people really love and not limit my selections to my personal faves! Pinks, yellow and reds are crowd favourites along with the peony and fringed-style tulips. Last season the white 'honeymoon' tulip was an absolute knock-out, I could've sold ten times as many as I had grown!"

What kind of growing media do you recommend?

“I use a 50/50 mix of regular soil and compost. I don't use anything special for them, as with most flowers good soil is key, and bulbs especially need good drainage. I mulch the soil with leaves after I've planted to preserve moisture and keep the soil in good condition. I also cover with netting to stop the cats and birds disturbing the soil.”

Do you keep your bulbs for a second year’s flowering?

“With tulips no I dont, it's a one-and-done when growing for cut flower production. To gain the stem length I need for floristry, I harvest the stem bulb and all. I compost the bulb (worms especially love them!) and buy fresh bulbs each season. Otherwise, especially in a colder climate with good soil, there’s no need to lift them. If they were just for my garden I would simply leave them to die down fully (which feeds the bulb) and they will come back next season. I do save anemone corms but I don't expect to get the longer stem length the following season. I'm still experimenting with this.”

Do you treat your bulbs in any way before planting?

“I pre-chill them for a period before planting, this helps get a longer stem length.”

[Pre-chilling can be done by putting bulbs in a paper (not plastic) bag or open container, into the fridge (the side or centre, not the back which may freeze) for a period from early April to late May. Do not store fruit in the same space, as the ethylene from the fruit will damage the bulbs.]

What are some of you favourite companion plants for using with spring bulbs in flower arrangements?

“I use what ever is flowering at the time such as manuka/kanuka, cup and saucer flower (Campanula) and spring snapdragons. I haven’t mastered growing stock yet but watch this space!”

What are some of your favourite bulbs for growing in pots?

“I do like the look of daffodils in pots. They can be moved around to wherever you need colour and hidden away when they're done. There's so many varieties to choose from. The miniature ones are especially beautiful.”

Which spring bulbs would you recommend for a beginner?

“Daffodils, freesia and tulips all are low maintenance and don't require any special treatment. Once you've planted the bulbs they will come up year after year and appear just when you need some cheer the most.”

Look for these products, tips and advice at an Go Gardening garden centre near you.



Tulips and daffodils combine in a pot for a fresh spring look in Ann's garden

Bright yellow daffodils complemented by an ornate dark blue pot

Hyacinths look best in pots when closely planted so that the bulbs are touching

Alison Watts

Tulip flowers harvested with bulbs attached

Anemones and ranunculus are favourites for picking