planting narcissi bulbs with dahlias

Planting narcissi bulbs with dahliasI love scented narcissi bulbs, and the ones bred from Narcissi tazetta or Narcissi jonquilla have delicate individual flowers in abundance at the top of every stem. They are one of the first things to give you proper drifts of colour early in the year and, if you put in plenty of bulbs, you can pick them by the bucket load.

Just plonk them in a jug, or arrange them en masse through a wooden grid in a large salad bowl, broken up with a few sprigs of emerging spring leaves. Many daffs don't last more than a few days in water, the trumpet going brown around the edges over one weekend, but not these. In a cool place they will last almost a week.

So some of them make durable cut flowers, and they're easy and persistent garden plants. With tulipsand even hyacinths, bulb numbers are likely to decrease over time, but not super-tolerant narcissus.

They'll grow well on a light, sandy soil in full sun, but if I add lots of grit to their planting position, they will also grow happily on heavy clay and will tolerate partial shade. Clumps come back bigger and better each year. Once they're in your garden, you can enjoy them for decades.

I'll plant up a new batch of narcissus bulbs in October and have selected four varieties to put in. I've chosen them to give us a succession of flowers from early March until the end of April, when the tulips take over here. As one narcissus variety goes over, the next comes out.

Narcissi 'Avalanche', which is at its best in the first week of March, starts me off. This is a marvellous variety, deliciously scented and very long lasting both in the garden and in water. You can grow it outside, or force it inside in a pot for early in the New Year.

This is a rangy grower, with tall and abundant stems, so it benefits from some support to stop it being blown around in spring gales. We grow it up through a web of bamboo canes outside and though silver-birch nests in its indoor pots.

Then comes Narcissi 'Silver Chimes', which has beautiful silvery white petals around a delicately shaped pale ivory trumpet. This is another huge producer, that can be harvested hard over several weeks, so that it appears almost cut-and-come-again. You can pick every bud and flower in sight one day and, six days later, lots of new ones have miraculously appeared.

'Silver Chimes' is joined by 'Trevithian' and then by 'Geranium', sometimes called the florist's daffodil. It has lots of pretty orange and ivory flowers topping each stem, a delicious scent and a long vase life. It will last almost a week in water if kept cool and out of sunlight.

Finally comes my favourite, the old pheasant's eye narcissus (N. poeticus var. recurvus), which can go on blooming well into May, with tall, elegant stems exuding an incredible exotic scent. There's almost nothing better than a large jug of this on your kitchen table and this variety in particular will last in a garden for years.

With the narcissus over in May, what happens next? That used to be it in the garden here, until we over-planted the bed with dahlias. This double layer of bulbs has been triumphant. The narcissus go in on a base of grit at about 15cm (6in) deep.

Then, as we cut down and divide our dahlias in the autumn, some of these go in over the top. Each tuber, with a few inches of stem left on, is planted at the same level as they were growing at in their original site, marked with a huge label so we know exactly where they are, and mulched deeply in 10cm (4in) of dry compost to help them survive the winter cold. I'm putting in my favourite three dark varieties - Dahlia 'Chat Noir', 'Rip City' and 'Bishop of Auckland'-with the odd splash of 'Jescot Julie' orange and 'Indian Summer' bright red.

The narcissus foliage emerges early in the New Year. As everyone will tell you, it is important to leave the browning foliage on your spring-flowering bulbs as long as you can. This allows photosynthesis so the plants can store food in the bulb to help produce flowers the following year.

However, we can't leave ours too long, having found that the dense foliage attracts slugs and snails, and as soon as the dahlias emerge their tender shoots are munched clean off.

Instead, we cut the bulb foliage back in rings around the dahlia tubers (that's where the large labels come in). When the dahlia foliage emerges in April and May, we enclose the vulnerable shoots in plastic bell cloches, or upside-down plastic bottles, to keep the pests away.

With this system, you have wonderful flowers to enjoy from March to May, and then from midsummer until the first frost. Give two-tier planting a try.