exotic bulbs for summer borders
If you like glamour in your garden - well-cut, well-dressed glamour - then summer-flowering bulbs are key.
Most of us think bulb-planting goes on primarily in the autumn, but there are several classy bulbs that can be planted now. My first three choices are not frost-hardy, but don't let that put you off: the gloriosa lily, the Peruvian daffodil and acidanthera - the softly scented cousin of the gladiolus - are safest grown in pots, and lifted and stored inside for the winter. Any frost-free shed or garage will do.
The next two aren't exactly tough - the luscious beauty of Tulbaghia violacea and Amaryllis belladonna hints at their origins in a warmer climate - but they are a little hardier and will survive winter in the ground under a carpet of mulch in a sheltered spot.
It's hard to resist the brilliant, insect-flower-from-the-Amazon looks of the gloriosa lily, Gloriosa superba 'Rothschildiana'. Exotic and extraordinary, it is nevertheless easy to grow and planting bulbs now, in the middle of April, is the way to go.
Start them off in a large pot in a light, bright place inside and, as soon as the frosts are over, find it a sunny, sheltered spot where you will appreciate it most. Water sparingly to begin with, then up the watering as the temperature rises.
Once the gloriosas are in leaf, give them a weak liquid feed that is high in potash every couple of weeks.
The first flower will unravel by the middle of summer, and there will be a succession over a good two-month stretch, with each individual flower lasting well. After flowering, reduce the watering until the leaves die back, then store the bulb in a frost-free, dry spot, until re-potting next spring.
Next is Hymenocallis x festalis, the Peruvian daffodil. Its chunky, lush foliage creates a perfect backdrop to pure white, apple-green-centred trumpets. Use an ordinary multi-purpose compost for planting and treat it in the same way as the gloriosa lily, watering it well and feeding it a bit during the flowering season.
Unlike the gloriosa, reduce the amount of water in winter, but do not let it dry out completely. Repot the whole plant to kick-start growth the following spring.
Some people will tell you that Gladiolus callianthus - like many large-flowered gladiolus hybrids - are safe left out over winter, but in my experience this isn't the case.
It's safest to lift the bulbs or grow them in a series of pots that can be brought in. Really cram the bulbs in, with at least a couple of layers. Make one layer about 8in deep, with the bulbs spaced 4in apart, with another layer 2in-4in above that.
Plant now in a loam-based compost, putting them outside as soon as the frosts are over. Once they reach 18in, support with a nest of cornus, willow or silver birch twigs, or canes and string. Without support, these tall (3ft), Tibetan prayer flags collapse on their side. As soon as the flower spikes appear, apply a high potash feed every two weeks until three weeks after flowering.
Once they've done their stuff, lift and dry them. Wait until the leaves turn yellow/brown; snap the corms from the stems, dust with sulphur or dip in fungicide, dry for two weeks then snap the new corms from the old, discarding the old. They must be kept cool and dry until replanting.
Tulbaghia violacea is another truly marvellous bulb that flowers from June until October. It's a relative of the allium and, like them, each individual flower lasts for weeks This is safest grown in a pot or against a south-facing wall, with grit dug into the soil.
Amaryllis belladonna (often known as naked ladies) is my final must-have bulb that flowers a month or so later than the others and is happy outside at the base of a sunny wall. They need well-drained soil and should not be planted too deeply, just up to their necks.
They'll need to be mulched over for winter protection, but once they're in, they're easy, and are deep down glamorous plants. The foliage appears in late autumn and has disappeared by June. Then, in September, up come magnificent crimson-stemmed, pink-trumpeted flowers, out of the ground naked.