Buying bulbs is the peak of no-effort gardening. All the work has been done by others, who nurtured the bulbs last year to build the underground stores that will power the flower you’ll get to enjoy.
All you need to provide is soil and sun – and even that is negotiable. Oh, one other thing, you do need patience. This is not instant gratification: you pay now for a pay-off in spring.
Where winters are reliably cool and spring comes slowly – which in Sydney takes in the upper north shore, the Hills district, and western Sydney – tulips are hard to beat for their range of colours, heights, styles and flowering times. (Tip: if spring weather can be unexpectedly warm around your way, choose early-flowering varieties that can do their best work undaunted by a blast of unseasonal heat.)
The major growers are Van Diemen Quality Bulbs, based at Table Cape in north-west Tasmania, and Tesselaar, from Silvan in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. In these cool climates, the bulbs develop well through a long spring before sinking into their summer dormancy. Expect to pay about $3 for a tulip bulb, which will deliver one stunning bloom; so for the price of a few bunches from the florist you can get a great show in the garden.
Choose a sunny spot in well-drained soil. Tulips like company and look much better partying close to each other in loose groups rather than standing to grim attention in a straight line. In pots, cram them in, on two levels, using onions to work out how many tulip bulbs you can fit into the pot.
Order now and plant in late May or June. In frost-free zones, six weeks in the crisper before planting will produce longer flowering stems. After the fun is over, discard the bulbs – they won’t reflower well in Sydney’s warm climate.
For something more permanent, choose freesias. Bedding freesias and so-called Grandma freesias are short-stemmed fragrant beauties that you can afford to mass somewhere sunny.
Native to South Africa, they are happy in Sydney’s climate and will naturalise, in the pot or in the garden, meaning that every year you’ll start to see them stick their heads above the soil in February or March, grow through winter and flower in spring. Tesselaar is offering sunny yellow bedding freesias for less than 50 cents each, so a big splash won’t bust the budget.