Did the dahlias disappoint and the pelargoniums fail to perform during our dismal summer?
© Gap Photos / Visions
Take heart and buy several bagfuls of bulbs, plant them pointy-side up in a stash of containers, and provided you keep squirrels and snails away with chicken-wire shields you are guaranteed potfuls of vibrant colour next spring. Green fingers are not needed; the hardest part is being patient.
All you need do is be selective and get creative. Choose varieties that will deliver a succession of flowers through the first months of the year, and that will give you the biggest splash. To do this, plant the same bulb en masse, all on its own.
BE BOLD WITH BLOCKS
Instead of dwarf daffs discreetly poking up between box balls in the window box, plant nothing but bulbs of multi-headed Tete-a-Tete or cheery Sun Disc in a plastic liner, and drop into the box when they're budding up, for a host of golden daffodils, small-scale.
Simply lift out the liner when they're over. Imagine a block of claret-coloured Woodstock hyacinths atop a clean-cut zinc planter, or, for daintier cottage-garden appeal, a crowd of the ravishing ice-blue grape hyacinth, Muscari Valerie Finnis, in a basket of woven willow. Bulbs such as these deserve a solo showing.
Paintbox mixtures can have as much impact as single shades. Fifty bulbs of mixed large-flowered Dutch crocus these have the bigger blooms will fill a wine or fruit crate with a mass of purple, gold, lilac and white blooms come February; line the box first with a plastic bin liner, and prod holes in the base.
© Gap Photos / Jonathan Buckley
PACK A BUNCH PUNCH
At that time of year, few florists' flowers can pack such a punch, all for £10. Anemone coronaria de Caen, flowering a month or so later, is another glorious mixed bunch: paintbox shades of poppy-headed flowers in inky violet, magenta, cerise, scarlet and white, all with sooty black centres.
Top the compost with pale horticultural grit and you can admire the fine, ferny foliage that is the first to emerge. For luscious single shades of Anemone coronaria, plant corms of violet Mr Fokker, magenta-pink Sylphide or sultry, crimson-purple Cristina, all from Sarah Raven.
COLOUR UP OUTDOORS
A low, wide terracotta pot is the perfect container for a dozen or so exquisite miniature iris; the patio or terrace table is the perfect place to admire their delicate markings and savour their sweet fragrance, from snowdrop time.
You can also enjoy them indoors. Jacques Amand's catalogue has a stunning collection, including the award-winning, early flowering Katharine Hodgkin, which has large, sky-blue flowers and gold and navy markings that look as if they have been applied with a fine paintbrush.
© Gap Photos / Jonathan Buckley
Species tulips are the first tulips to flower, from late February onwards, and as they're low-growing, are perfect candidates for containers. They're very beautiful and are surprisingly easy to grow, so plant plenty before the main-event tulips.
Humilis Persian Pearl, five inches tall, has deep magenta blooms with pointy petals that open wide to reveal rich golden centres; award-winning Little Beauty, just four inches high, has cherry-red flowers that open to a centre of astonishing navy blue. Taller whittalii is a gem, its goblet flowers shaded soft brass on the outside, and opening to a stunning bright tangerine.
After they've flowered, you can plant all your container bulbs in any patch of ground, where they'll spread, making carpets of colour for future years; double value, double delight.
BEST FOR BULBS
Sarah Raven: sarahraven.com; 0845 092 0283
Jacques Amand: living colourbulbs.com; 01962 840038
Avon Bulbs: avonbulbs.co.uk; 01460 242177