Planting Spring bulbs “in the green”

Bluebell bulbs in the green (Feb 2022)

In autumn, suppliers catalogues and garden centres are filled with packets of spring flowering bulbs (including tubers and corms) which are all very tempting, but there are lots of good reasons to avoid them and wait until spring. Firstly, it is very difficult in autumn to visualise how your garden will look when spring comes, where the gaps are, and what you might want more of. Planting autumn-purchased bulbs can be very hit or miss too, and you are liable to dig up dormant bulbs in the process. Far better to wait for spring when you can properly see where everything is, then buy just the right quantity and varieties, and plant them exactly in the right spot.

The downside, of course, is that packets of spring bulbs are only available in the autumn, so for a spring planting you will have to buy potted bulbs, or “sprouted bulbs”. Such bulbs are said to be “in-the-green” and usually come with reassuringly healthy roots and shoots. Buying bulbs this way (potted up or in the green) is usually more expensive than buying dried bulbs in the autumn, but may be justified due to the many benefits:

Benefits of spring bulbs in-the-green or in pots

  • You can be sure your bulbs are viable.
    Sometimes autumn planted bulbs don’t grow.
  • If they are in flower, you can see the colour and form.
    — No nasty surprises when the blue anemones you planted in the autumn turn out to be pink.
  • It is easier to locate them appropriately as you can see your other spring bulbs growing.
    — You don’t have to guess where they are.
  • You get results fast.
    — No more wondering why your autumn planted bulbs didn’t come up.
  • Sometimes spring planted bulbs do better than autumn planted ones.
    — You sometimes can’t tell if bulbs in a packet are viable.

In this post I’m going to share some of my experience of planting and transplanting bulbs that are “in the green” that is, in active growth as sprouted bulbs, but also pot-grown bulbs where this has an advantage.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops are a case in point. If you purchase the dormant bulbs for autumn planting, they can sometimes disappoint, especially if they dry out too much during storage, which you can’t tell when you buy them. On the other hand you can easily lift, divide and replant snowdrops in February and March when they are in full flower, and in my experience, such transplants are invariably successful. I have created dozens of new clumps by this method, which is a great way to get free plants of known quality, form and consistency.

Many nurseries also sell snowdrops “in the green” at this time of the year. They are quite competitively priced if you shop around.

Two of the snowdrops that I lifted and replanted last year. Despite being in full growth, they are completely unharmed and grow away quickly.

Hardy Cyclamen

It is similar with hardy cyclamen (c. coum and c. hederifolium). They do much better if you plant them as pot-grown plants rather than from dried corms. Purchasing dried corms may save a little money, but often they do not flower for a couple of years while they settle in. In contrast, pot-grown plants establish quickly and will reliably flower the following year. I planted several clumps of c. hederifolium last autumn (see photo below) which continued flowering for weeks. Being able to plant them while in full flower allowed me to know exactly what colour I was getting, which is not always the case when you plant dormant bulbs and only have the photo on the packet as a guide.

Three pot-grown cyclamen hederifolium planted in the autumn

This spring I added several cyclamen coum to a different part of the garden. Again, it was very reassuring knowing exactly the colour I was dealing with.

Purchasing bulbs in the green

For the first time this spring, I purchased bulbs “in-the-green” — that is, spring bulbs that had already started to sprout. I ordered 100 snowdrops, 100 English bluebells and 75 crocus bulbs. They were a little more expensive than dried autumn bulbs, but it was worth if for the convenience alone. It is much easier to plan a spring garden in the spring than in the autumn: I could see gaps that could be filled and being able to purchase them immediately was such a boon compared to having to figure out in the autumn what I needed and where I should plant it.

The bulbs arrived, packed tightly in compost. The snowdrops were as expected: healthy roots and leaves, although none of them had flowers. I planted them anyway. Only time will tell if they fit in with my existing snowdrops.

Crocus in-the-green

The crocuses were the least satisfactory of my foray into in-the-green bulbs as the shoots are delicate and brittle, and several had snapped off in transit. They were, nevertheless, still a pleasure to plant, more so than dormant bulbs, as there was an implicit sense that they would succeed. I’m never quite confident if the crocus bulbs I plant in Autumn will make it to the spring, whereas these reassured me. Another benefit compared to dried bulbs is that it was immediately obvious which way up to plant them. Sometimes dried bulbs can be less easy to orientate.

Crocus bulbs purchased in-the-green just before planting.

English Bluebells in-the-green

The bluebell bulbs were nice and plump with plenty of roots and short strong shoots. One of the issues with purchasing “English” bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), is that often they turn out to be Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) or some bastard hybrid of the two (Hyacinthoides x massartiana). Buying them in-the-green like these — without flowers — doesn’t help. If in a couple of month’s these turn out to be the Spanish variety I’ll be pretty miffed!

Healthy bluebell bulbs “in the green” just before planting. If only I could be sure they are true English bluebells rather than the Spanish or hybrid varieties!

Anemone blanda – pot grown

The last “bulbous” plant I added this spring was the blue Grecian Windflower, Anemone blanda. I planted a few in my woodland beds several years ago and marvelled this week, when I spotted several flowers poking their heads up in the bitter February wind. I was surprised that such delicate non-native plants had persisted in my garden for so long with little in the way of attention. I like to encourage plants that like my garden, so decided to augment them. I soon found a local nursery selling them cheap in little pots. I snapped up half dozen — all in flower and planted them in little patches close to the pre-existing ones. If I had purchased them in the autumn as dried tubers, I wouldn’t have known where to place them as the existing ones die down in early summer. Furthermore, buying them in pots, I could see the colour matched the ones I already had.

Anemone blanda: delicate spring flower that survives on neglect in my woodland garden

DIY in-the-green and potted bulbs

If you are well-organised, it might be possible to buy bulbs in the autumn, then pot them up yourself, ready to plant out in the spring. This would save you money and give you many of the advantages of buying pot-grown bulbs. However, you would still have to guess ahead of time, what species and colours you wanted. It might be worth while, especially for unusual varieties that you might only be available as dried bulbs in autumn, which might otherwise be hard to track down in the spring.

UPDATES to follow…

It is too early to tell how successful this foray into bulbs-in-the-green will be. I have a sense that it will work out well.

Once the bulbs are flowering I’ll take some photos and post them here, so check back in a couple of months.


2 thoughts on “Planting Spring bulbs “in the green””

  1. I’m so glad that I have come across this article because before I knew it, working to hard etc , I thought Nooooo it’s Xmas next week and I’ve totally forgotten about planting my bulbs so I decided to wait until after Xmas, but I thought secretly it wouldn’t work, this article has made me feel better because their going in this weekend.
    Thanks for this I’ll sleep better tonight 😉

    Reply

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