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Switch on right bulb for colour; GARDENING.

LET'S skip the next four months and imagine we are on the brink of spring.

Just imagine that the days are lengthening and the colour is starting to return to our gardens and pots after 16 weeks of bitter cold and rain.

To achieve a spring garden that is alive with early-season colour, you have to start planting and planning now.

Going by what you may have seen in local parks and community gardening schemes, spring bulbs are limited to red tulips or sometimes a few blue grape hyacinths.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Any decent bulb catalogue will have hundreds of varieties of daffodil (narcissus) and tulip, but few of them give you the real low-down on what's good and what's not.

Fritillaria are at the top of my list of spring bulbs. The best known is the wee snake's head, or fritillaria mealagris to give it its Sunday name. The flowers come in two tones - a sultry ruddy claret overlaid with deepest crimson, or ivory white with a gold inlay.

On spring days, the large, pendulous blooms open fully and form open claws, ready to grasp the few insects brave enough to tackle the elements. This is one of the few European species and it prefers damp meadows, where the soil remains wet throughout summer, but not waterlogged in winter.

The snake's head will self-seed, covering swathes of ground. They usually cost pounds 5 for 50 bulbs. They should be planted now.

Even more impressive are the statuesque flowers of the crown imperial, fritillaria imperialis. This group originates from the Middle East, where they thrive in areas of winter rains and high summer dormancy. To be a success in Scotland, they require a bit of work.

They don't like damp conditions. So you need to encourage good drainage by encasing the whole bulb in a cushion of sharp grit. It is also wise to lay the bulb on its side when planting so the moisture drains from the neck of the bulb.

They have a reputation for having a bit of a pong. The aroma has been variously described as fox, cat, old trainers and even mothballs. It's not as bad as it sounds, though. The smell is rather faint and only when you brush against the plant or damage the bulbs with a misplaced spade will you notice the niff.

The crown imperial has been at the mercy of the hybridists and now comes in various casts, but there are three main forms to search for. The orange form, fritillaria imperialis aurora, is a striking plant suitable for a border in full sun and with rich soil.

Pick up a fist-sized bulb, test it for firmness and buy as many as you can afford. The green stems are erect and lily-like and are clothed in bright green foliage. These are crowned with a head of pendulous bells, generous in size, rich in colour and thick in texture.

The warm orange flowers have blood-red veins. If you look inside the flowers, each has a large dollop of silver nectar that quivers on its base like a globule of liquid silver.

Fritillaria imperialis lutea has vibrant sulphur yellow blooms, with the same fine appearance, and is more vigorous than the orange form. Initially, you may only get a few blooms, but fear not. The bulb takes a while to settle down, but in good soil, you should have repeat flowering within three seasons.

If you love the unusual there is the peculiar crown on crown form. The plant reaches the same height and size as its stable relatives, yet produces a distinct whorl of crowns, on top of the first. As yet, this plant is not often seen, but should be acquired at any cost.

Specials such as these may well justify the expense of a large terracotta pot, so that you can enjoy them wherever you like. Once they have finished flowering and the green stem has died back, drop the bulbs into the border, at least six inches deep, and leave well alone. Next year, buy some fresh bulbs to keep the display going.

I adore the fritillaria persica. This plant also originates in the Middle East, but is less tolerant of damp during its summer rest. It needs a hot position, with full sun and shelter, to proliferate. That is something you will be keen to encourage when you view the end result.

This plant has been known to reach 5ft when in flower, but most of us can expect a couple of feet less. The flowers are dark purple bells with gold stamens and waxy texture. When backlit by low spring sunshine, the true quality of the inky blooms is revealed. It is impressive enough to start you on an obsession with flowers of peculiar tones.

HOUSEPLANTS kept outside for the summer will need to come inside now that the weather is cooling down.

The contrast between the damp cold nights and the warm luxury of your house could encourage some plants to start growing and stretching all over the place.

However, decreased light levels should keep most green plants on tick-over mode. These overwintering specimens are particularly susceptible to winter rots, as they can be overwatered without you realising it.

I plant my houseplants out for the summer and pot them up in terracotta containers for winter. The container is just big enough to take the root ball. I water the plant lightly on the surface.

Avoid overwatering any established plant after repotting, as dry compost will encourage new roots to seek out moisture and thus utilise the fresh compost sooner.

For many houseplants air moisture is just as valuable as root moisture, so increasing the humidity is an important and frequently overlooked part of the regime.

A large tray filled with sharp grit, vermiculite or pea gravel can be used to raise the air humidity. Spray the plants, gravel and pots at least twice a day, adding a little soap or plant food to every other dousing.

If you go to the trouble of creating a well-lit, buoyant atmosphere, the range of houseplants you can grow is greatly extended and creates an area where plant-bugs are discouraged and growth is positively encouraged.

This is a good approach for most houseplants, so remember, keep on spraying, ease off on the watering, and always remove surplus water.

Excess water acts as an air lock and can cause plants to die within a few days.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Chudziak, Bill
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 29, 2000
Previous Article:PROBLEMS The Beechgrove Garden's Carolyn Spray answers your questions; Why is my pot luck a blooming failure?
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