A head full of bulbs at Sissinghurst Castle Garden

Bulbs in full colour

In the gardening calendar, October is the time when gardeners begin to look ahead to the following year. Whilst woodland fans start to get excited about the spectacle of colour that is about to be revealed, we have to accept that, despite our best efforts, the garden is starting to sink gracefully into its winter slumber.

The arrival of the end of summer could be a melancholic event, but it’s also a positive time when we think ahead to spring, and the buying and planting of bulbs. It's quite an exciting time, as we ponder what bulbs we might want to use for our spring time displays, and there is always much discussion about this. Bulb catalogues have been strewn around the table in the Mess Room for several weeks now, the number getting ever greater as the time for bulb ordering approaches. Lists and spreadsheets have been drawn up and numbers decided. There are bulbs for the garden to be chosen, bulbs for the Cutting Garden and bulbs for our pots and troughs. In fact, it is remarkably easy to get carried away on a wave of bulb fever, even to the point of dreaming about them.

Bulbs in the garden are either treated as annuals or perennials. Narcissus are reliably perennial but only some tulips can be relied upon to return in subsequent years, and are, therefore, treated as either as an annual or are topped up every year. This year the White Garden is getting more than its fair share of bulbs, as the renewed beds are planted up in earnest. Narcissus ‘Thalia’, a beautiful white daffodil, the lily-flowered tulip ‘White Triumphator’ and the single late tulip ‘Maureen’ feature heavily in this area. All are graceful, elegant flowers that will fit in well with the White Garden planting theme.

In the Cutting Garden there is a wide selection of bulbs that will be used to provide cut flowers for the Restaurant, Library and Vita’s Writing Room. We already have rows of narcissus planted as a perennial crop so these do not need to be replaced. Narcissus that work well as cut flowers include ‘Thalia’, ‘Avalanche’, ‘Hawera’ and ‘Petrel’. Tulips, however, are planted every year and this means that there is a great opportunity to try new cultivars. We have some classic Sissinghurst favourites such ‘Princess Irene’, ‘Negrita’, ‘Havran’ and ‘Ballerina’ but this year we are also trying ‘Candy Prince’, ‘Purple Prince’ and a Rembrandt tulip called ‘Columbine’. There are also alliums, gladioli, hyacinths and ixias that will give cut flowers throughout spring and well into summer.

Sissinghurst bulbs in colour
Sissinghurst bulbs in colour

Finally, there are the bulbs that we’ve chosen for the pots and troughs. Within the garden we have 37 immovable containers of various sizes and 3 large farmyard troughs outside the shop and restaurant, all of which need to be considered for spring displays. Some will need to contain winter flowering bulbs too as these will be on the winter route that visitors follow when they visit South Cottage. In addition to the immovable pots, there are many movable pots that will also all be planted up with spring bulbs, and an Auricula Theatre that during the winter will display snowdrops, crocus and Iris reticulata.

It is surprising just how complicated this process can be, with many crucial elements needing to be considered at the same time. For example, for just one trough measuring 130cm x 51cm we ordered two cultivars of snowdrops (G. 'Elwesii' and G. 'Jacquenetta'), three different crocus (C. chrysanthus 'Blue Pearl', C. chrysanthus 'Ard Schenk' and C. vernus 'Grand Maitre'), two Iris reticulata ('Alida' and 'White Caucasus'), Cyclamen coum, Cyclamen coum 'Album', Narcissus 'Elka' and Muscari 'Baby’s Breath'. In total, 720 bulbs. If everything goes according to plan we should have something in flower from January to April. We repeated this process for every container in the garden.

Choosing bulbs can be fun and exciting but it is always more thrilling to see them in flower. When you next visit, do have a look at our pots and troughs. Depending on when you visit, you may see them being planted up with bulbs by the gardeners or, even better, bursting with colour in spring.