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How to let a hundred flowers bloom

October 02, 2016


Frangipani -Photo by the writer
Frangipani -Photo by the writer

A wide range of flower bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes and tuberous roots, many of them ‘wearing’ visually alluring illustrations to tempt potential buyers to splurge, are beginning to appear in the markets. Their numbers will be increased over the next four to six weeks to the point where ‘spoilt for choice’ becomes the rule rather than the exception.

The vast majority of these are imported, mostly from Europe with a lesser number from countries to our east. But when buying anything at all, it is wise to know the ropes, as the bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes and tuberous roots offered for sale here — despite being increasingly expensive — are not always of the quality they ought to be.

Here are some explainers and pointers for each of these categories:

October gives a new meaning to flower power

1. Bulbs: Some bulbs are slightly soft, even rubbery, lilies being a prime example, as they are covered in food-rich scales, held together at the base by a basal plate. Other bulbs are quite hard to the touch and wear an outer layer of either paper-like skin — daffodils, nargis, Dutch iris, allium aflatunense and Dutch hyacinths for instance as in the case of tulips and some others, an often quite fragile, outer skin that is shiny in appearance.

When buying ‘soft’ bulbs, select only those which are plump, completely free of mould/fungal growth and which are firmly held together at the base. Do not buy any which have obviously begun to dry out/shrivel up and avoid those which have already sent up shoots of three inches or more as these may have already used up too much of their energy to thrive and flower to the best of their ability: If they survive, it could take them a year or two to rebuild their flowering strength.

Hard bulbs: These should be unblemished, undamaged, possibly showing a tiny tip of emerging growth but no more than a tip.

2. Corms: These have a solid stem base and are often encased in a fabric-like, papery, outer casing which if the corms have begun to dry out, have been incorrectly handled/stored or are completely expired, has a give-away habit of shedding to expose the naked inside. Crocus, gladioli and freesias are all examples of corms.

Select healthy corms that are firmly wearing their outer covering, free of visible injury/disease and which have a minute growing tip visible.

3. Tubers: These are mostly flattish on top, often covered in rough hair — rather like fine coconut coir — and they have eyes. Basically they are fleshy stem bases: Their eyes being buds from which stems will grow and they are planted with the flat part surrounded by eyes upwards. At first glance, it is easy to confuse them with corms but a closer inspection will reveal their give-away eyes. Prime examples are corydalis, cyclamen, begonia and anemones.

Check for disease/fungal infection, paying particular attention to the upper area and around the eyes. Select nicely plump tubers and avoid any which are drying out and/or which have already developed shoots over two inches high.

4. Rhizomes: These look just like roots but, in reality, are horizontal stems that grow beneath the soil. They send up shoots from the top of the rhizome and roots from underneath. Bearded iris and canna lilies are good examples. Buy only whole, not broken in half, rhizomes and also avoid any with cuts/gouges in them as such wounds that may harbour a variety of fungal diseases. Do not buy any which show signs of drying out.

5. Tuberous roots: These, as in the case of dahlias, have a potato look about them although they do vary tremendously in size. They are predominantly in bunches of tuberous roots attached to a stem pointing upwards. Day-lilies are another example. As with tubers and rhizomes, check for fungal disease, damage and plumpness. Aside from planting bulbs, corms, rhizomes, tubers and tuberous roots this month, there are lots of other things to plant too.

Seeds to sow for a breathtaking flower garden over the winter and on into spring, include: Masses of Sweet Williams, scented ones if possible and in a wide range of colours and forms, sweet sultan, cornflowers, old-fashioned, preferably perfumed, petunias, antirrhinums, annual chrysanthemums, stocks, lobelia, poppies of all kinds, colours and sizes, godetia, alyssum, ageratum, nigella, verbena, coreopsis and, in the second half of the month, larkspur and early sweet peas.

More seasonal flowers but edible ones this time: Picture perfect pansies with smiling faces, violas, dianthus (pinks), bellis, pelargoniums and the often forgotten about wallflowers which are an absolute, long lasting, delight.

In the vegetable garden this month: Winter and spring cabbage, cauliflower, green onions, broccoli, calabresse, Brussels sprouts, beetroot, carrots, turnips, rutabaga, tomatoes, mustard, giant red mustard, mizuna, lettuce, endive, spinach, Swiss chard/leaf beet, kale, potatoes, peas, beans, broad beans, celery, Chinese and Japanese salad greens, winter radish and onions.

Herbs: Coriander, mint, chives, garlic chives, lavender, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm, parsley, sage, fennel, dill, nasturtiums, chamomile, oregano, marjoram, thyme, watercress, borage, calendulas and lovage.

Then there are all of those wonderful trees, shrubs, climbers and other perennial such as frangipani to invest in as well.

Flower of the month: Alcea rosea – Hollyhock. These old fashioned favourites are simple to grow and are found in a wide range of colours, from dwarf, medium to tall in height and can be annual, bi-annual or perennial. They also produce tons and tons of easy to harvest seed and will merrily self-seed all over the place if allowed. Their eye-catching flowers, arranged around their stems and above their leaves, can be in single, double, carnation or rose form. Sow seed from mid-August to late November in all parts of the country except for hill stations where they are best sown in early spring. The flat seed, spaced at 3-4 inches apart in all directions, should be sown half an inch deep in reasonable compost in seed trays or pots: It can also be sown in prepared seed beds directly in the ground. When seedlings are 3-4 inches tall, transplant to their selected growing site (3 ft or more apart depending on eventual height) or large pot/container. They are not fussy about soil as long as it is well drained and flourish in sunshine/very light shade.

Please continue sending your gardening questions to Remember to include your location. Answers to selected questions will appear in a future issue of the magazine. This takes time. The writer does not reply directly by e-mail. E-mails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd, 2016