My greenhouse floor is currently covered with what looks like pots of soil, all neatly labelled, some with a covering of grit over the surface. I have been planting bulbs in pots, something I always mean to do and very rarely get around to. But it’s a fine thing to do, packing away little pots of future prettiness to pop up at some point in late winter or early spring. I like the minimal work involved: plant, label, water and forget. They might need a dribble of water every now and then but my task is pretty much fulfilled until the green shoots start appearing. These babies will look after themselves from now on. Satisfying.
It feels a particularly good winter use of space in an unheated greenhouse. Quite a few of my other plants are going to have to be shifted and shimmied about in the next few weeks, and many will end up snuggled together in the little greenhouse up next to the house, which I will keep vaguely heated with the use of a propagation mat: just enough of a touch of warmth to keep the worst frosts at bay. But the greenhouse is completely unheated. This is perfect for bulbs, which wouldn’t quite know what to do with themselves if they were kept warm throughout. They need the cold that they will inevitably get in there, followed by the warmth of early spring, to tell them when to do what they do. But although they will get cold, the greenhouse is certainly not going to throw them the kind of conditions they would get outdoors. For one thing these bulbs will be kept bone dry, apart from those occasional, judicious dribbles. This suits bulbs, many of which hail from Mediterranean regions with dry winters and get pretty fed up in a continually soggy British one. And while the greenhouse will rarely be what you or I would consider warm, it will most certainly be a degree or two warmer than outside, and bulbs notice these things. All of this should mean that my bulbs pop up a little earlier than their counterparts in the garden, and that they are in pretty good nick when they do. This is not proper forcing, by the way. If you are keen to get really early flowers you will need to buy ‘pre-chilled’ bulbs, which will have been tricked into thinking that winter has already been and gone by the time you plant them. I didn’t go for these, so this really is a gentle forcing, sticking mostly to the bulbs’ own timetables, just giving them everything they need to be prompt.
First on my list was Iris reticulata, the delicate, dwarf iris that seems made for this kind of treatment. I managed to dig out a bulb pan that had been hiding under a pile of pots, and is precisely the sort of thing such beauties suit best: you don’t need a huge amount of soil but you do need a large surface area across which the flowers can show themselves off. A squat bulb pan does all those things. Next up was Crocus chrysanthus ‘Prins Claus’, which caught my eye with its cupped flowers, lovely creamy white with dark purple feathering. They have been packed into a terracotta window box and a little terracotta pot, me being short on bulb pans. A pot of grape hyacinths and one of searing pink Anemone coronaria later and I was out of nice containers entirely. Never mind, they’ve been put to good use. Now I sit back and wait for them all to pretty up the greenhouse – or maybe the front door step – on the other side of winter.