Summer is the time to plant bulbs

With the weather hotting up for future years, British gardeners must learn to cope, says Dr Jonathan Holliday.

It has been a dry summer and the meteorologists say that we can expect even more of this Mediterranean weather in years to come, and we must learn to cope, like the French and Italians do.

The queen of the dry garden in the UK is Beth Chatto, with her book The Dry Garden. There are a couple of general points to make. First, 'plant plenty of something that looks good most of the year, rather than struggle to keep alive plants which at best only accentuate the fact that what you have to offer them is not what they need'.

Second, drought is not just about water. The plant in sheltered conditions in moisture-retaining soil will have much more water at its disposal than the same plant in windy exposed conditions with poor soil. The soil can be improved by changing its make-up and by mulching.

Mulching will stop almost all weeds coming through, the exceptions being bindweed and dandelion. Mulch can be with bark, straw or finely chopped vegetation that has been through a shredder.

Ground improvement is really about that compost again. The organic material puts back nitrogen, but also changes the texture, allowing air and better drainage in clay soil and water retention in sandy soil.

When choosing plants, think Mediterranean. Acanthus mollis is originally from Italy, but its habitat spreads from Spain to Greece. These are larger scale plants whose flower spikes one metre or so in length with numerous purple and white flowers.

The dark green glossy leaves are a tremendous feature. They can look great in the border, but beware: they are rather prickly to work around, and have deep roots that make them difficult to expunge if you change your mind.

I love Alchemilla mollis, a low-growing pale green plant with its clouds of lime green flowers, but I know that others are not so keen and frantically cut away the flower heads before they can set seed. Certainly it is a prolific multiplier.

Agapanthus too is a hardy plant offering tall flower stems rising out of the dark green strap-like leaves with round heads of pale blue flowers.

Always the favourite of the late Queen Mother, she would have full borders of them. While it is said that plenty of water is needed for potatoes, I have resisted turning the sprinkler on them and still have had an excellent crop. Courgettes are so much better picked young and small. Frances Mayes in her book Under the Tuscan Sun gives a good account: take the flower (and it must be fresh and holding its shape) and place a thin strip of mozzarella inside each one. Dip in batter and fry in hot (but not smoking) sunflower oil until crisp and golden. Delicious.

Finally, it seems strange to think about planting bulbs in the heat of summer, but August and September is the time to plant. When ordering, don't underestimate the number of bulbs you will need for the required effect. Plant in drifts to achieve the most impressive result. Those cylindrical bulb-planting tools can save time and effort if you are doing large numbers.

- Dr Jonathan Holliday is a GP in Windsor

- Find out more on dry gardens at


  • Plant bulbs in drifts to achieve the best results.
  • Improve soil by changing its make-up and mulching.
  • When choosing plants, think Mediterranean.

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