Wednesday, 18 September 2013

On bulbs, and hoola for your moolah

As suddenly as someone flicking a switch the children are back at school, the temperatures have noticeably dropped, and the evenings are dark by eight. It’s rumoured that some have even been eyeing the central heating controls, and the time for the annual visit of the chimney sweep approaches. Summer may yet rally for one final, glorious encore, but it is unmistakably waning, and thoughts begin to turn in earnest to next year’s garden. Autumn (am I allowed to use that word yet?) is the time for planting bulbs – beginning with alliums, which benefit from a little residual warmth in the September ground, and finishing with tulips in late autumn, when the colder temperatures will help to keep the dreaded tulip fire at bay. This is good news, as bulbs offer the time strapped garden owner a shortcut to fantastic floral displays, with relatively little investment required in either time or money. Of all the ways to buy plants, bulbs arguably get you the most jolly for your lolly.

Which brings me in rather timely fashion to that purple pom-pom headed lollipop of a flower which graces fashionable borders throughout the spring and into summer – the allium, and most particularly, to the one known as Allium hollandicum 'Purple Sensation'. The allium family includes onions, garlic, leeks and chives – whose flowers and growth habit all bear a marked familial resemblance – but of those alliums grown for ornament, 'Purple Sensation' is undoubtedly the most ubiquitous. No doubt this popularity stems from being easy to grow, inexpensive (twenty five bulbs will cost you less than a ten pounds), and providing a reliably cheerful display. The stem, between 60 and 75 cm in height, requires no staking and the globe comprising myriad individual violet florets grows to 10cm in diameter. The whole flower dries particularly well, though if this is your intention it’s a good idea to hang them upside-down when drying so that the many black seeds have the opportunity to fall out before you scatter them all over your carpet.

Allium 'Purple Sensation' in the borders at Great Dixter
If you’ve yet to include any ornamental alliums in your garden, start with this one and, if you like what you see, perhaps consider augmenting your display the following year with its shorter, but impressively large headed cousin A. christophii, or the statuesque A. giganteum and 'Globemaster'.

Planting notes
This allium is particularly unfussy and will cope with most situations, except waterlogged soil. It grows and looks remarkably well in a dry garden setting. Bulbs should be planted 10 to 15 cm deep (a depth of roughly three times the size of the bulb) and a similar distance apart for the best effect. Although not necessary, the job would be rendered distinctly less back breaking by the purchase of a long-handled bulb planter, such as the one made by Joseph Bentley. I must remember to buy one myself.