The trick is to buy the bulbs that keep on giving, year in, year out, rather than one-hit wonders that will look terrific the first year, then disappear without trace. Choose bulbs that naturalise, so that they spread with ease, making even more of an impact the following season: they're inexpensive so you can afford to buy in bulk and then plant en masse.
© GAP Photos/Chris Burrows
Big, showy daffodils, for example, don't guarantee a repeat performance, but the smaller species narcissi, once planted, will reliably settle and multiply.
Those to seek out include our dainty native daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the beautiful cyclamineus, which has golden yellow, tubular flowers and the pretty cottage-garden pheasant's eye narcissus, poeticus recurvus, with its yellow centre rimmed in deep red. February Gold, a rich yellow daffodil, has the asset of being one of the first to flower, and will increase year on year.
You might have to wait a week or so longer than usual for the large-flowering Dutch crocuses to bloom, but they're worth the wait and will happily naturalise in grass or soil; bulb merchant Jacques Amand sells 100 of these beauties in a mixed bag of violet, gold, white and streaky lilac for just £24.
Invest in these, plant in the grass by lifting a flap of turf, settle in several corms, replace, and you will have a veritable tapestry of colour on your lawn next March.
Muscari — the blue grape hyacinth — will make stunning pools of blue through the garden in spring for the price of a shop-bought bouquet, and will do so again, provided you choose the deep blue species, armenaicum.
© GAP Photos/Richard Bloom/Visions
And a handful of cheap-as-chips Anemone coronaria will give you the most gorgeous sooty-centred poppy flowers in paintbox colours that will spread over the years, provided you plant them in a sunny spot. Sarah Raven offers 20 corms of Anemone Cristina, a glamorous purple-crimson, for just £3.95.
Ornamental onion Allium sphaerocephalon has little impact solo, but as it's so inexpensive, you can buy a bagful or three and make luscious ribbons of lime green — then blackcurrant — colour ripple through the borders in late summer.
Tulipa sylvestris is the pretty, scented wild tulip with green-flushed pale yellow flowers that will spread under trees and in grass; bronze-red Tulipa hageri is just as obliging.
Another way to get more bulb for your buck is to buy multi-headed varieties, such as pure white daffodil Thalia, perfect for pots, with three or more flowers to a stem, lemon-flowered Hawera, with up to six flowers per stem, and the golden dwarf multi-headed daffodil Tête-à-Tête. Tulipa praestans Fusilier is the classic scarlet tulip for containers and front-of-border, and produces up to six flowers on each fir-green, eight-inch stem for little outlay, big impact.
Plant your bulbs wisely. Mass a dozen hybrid tulips in one outsize pot and you will have more splash for your cash than a few dotted about in several pots. They are unlikely to give as dazzling a show in their second year, so after flowering, lift them and replant in the borders, to stretch their lifespan and guarantee further colour.
If you're going to spend on big, showy bulbs, invest in sure-fire flowers; lilies are among the most sensational of all summer-flowering bulbs and are surprisingly easy to grow. For the best and biggest blooms, plant this autumn, either in black plastic pots to sink into bare spots in the border, or plant in deep containers.
Just three bulbs of fragrant, flamboyant varieties such as Golden Splendour or rose-throated Lilium regale, costing less than £10, will amaze you next summer with their dynamic flower power, and they will carry on blooming year after year: that's real investment dressing for the garden.