Tips on how to perk up your patio pots with bulbs which will provide a welcome burst of colour next year - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson
If your summer pots are looking straggly and tired, bite the bullet, bin the summer bedding and make a head start by filling your containers with spring bulbs.
Bulbs often do better in containers than in the ground, as you can control drainage better and plant them in gritty compost which gives them more chance of success.
Ideally, daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths should be planted by the end of September, although they can be planted later.
Tulips should be planted in late October or November, as they need a drop in temperature to root well. Planting in lower temperatures may also reduce the chances of them getting a fungal disease called tulip blight (Botrytis tulipae), which can rot the bulbs or cause lesions on the leaves.
Don't be fooled into thinking that spring bulbs in pots should all be of the dwarf variety. While there's few prettier sights than a mass of deep blue muscari filling a small traditional terracotta pot, don't be afraid of planting big, bold bulbs en masse in bigger pots because, provided they are in a fairly sheltered spot away from strong winds, they should give you a stunning display.
Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) look impressive planted in groups of three in large metal containers in a contemporary setting, alongside trimmed box and other architectural plants, while narcissi with stout stems, such as N. 'Bridal Crown', will provide long-lasting blooms and won't topple over in cooler situations.
I love the strong form of the Darwin tulips, which can reach 50-60cm in height and bloom from mid to late spring. They are how you would expect a tulip to look, with no frills or blousy flowers. A surefire winner is Tulipa 'Queen Of Night', with its strong stems carrying silky purple-black flowers. I prefer to plant it as a single variety, without any plant partners, and place it against a white wall to show off its deep, rich colour to its best.
Many gardeners opt for layering bulbs for a continuous display throughout spring. This is done by planting a variety of bulbs at different depths in the pot. For instance, in a large container insert larger bulbs such as tulips, covering them in compost, then add another layer of medium-sized bulbs such as dwarf narcissi and cover these, then finally add small bulbs such as crocuses or snowdrops and top them with a final layer of compost.
The bulbs nearer the top will flower first, then as they die down they will be replaced by the medium bulbs, which will in turn be replaced by the larger bulbs later in the season. Recipes might include Scilla siberica on the top layer, Narcissus 'Tete a Tete' in the middle layer and Tulipa 'Golden Apeldoorn' on the bottom layer, but there are many other possibilities.
When planting bulbs, place crocks in the bottom of the pot, add 15-20cm of multi-purpose compost with added John Innes or bulb fibre and begin your layering, nestling late-flowering bulbs into the surface of the compost and adding compost just to cover the bulbs or leave the tips showing.
If you leave pots outside in the winter, don't let them become sodden. Stand the pots on feet to allow the moisture to drain through. However, don't let the pots dry out either or it will lead to stunted growth and flowers which wilt quickly.
It's a good bet to put the pots by the house in winter, moving them to expose them to the elements from February onwards, so they don't dry out. Once the bulbs are in flower, water them every other day.
Best of the bunch - Michaelmas daisy (Aster)
There was a time when these perennial stalwarts went out of fashion, but they are worthy plants which add structure and colour to a border.
I tend to repeat plant the tall white versions (Aster novae-belgii 'Blandie', which grows to 1.2m) in larger beds, which break up the many burnt reds and oranges you start to see at this time of year, but Michaelmas daisies, or asters, as they are also known, come in a range of colours from pinks to reds and blues. They are also a magnet for butterflies in late summer and autumn.
All asters do well in sun or light shade in reasonable soil, but need to be kept well watered in dry soils. Other more colourful choices include A. amellus 'King George', producing violet blue flowers from August to November and 'Violet Queen', a smaller variety growing to 60cm (25in) and bearing blue-violet flowers.
Asters can be planted in summer to fill gaps left by early flowering plants. Their flowers look lovely in silvery, grey or pastel schemes.
Good enough to eat - Courgettes
They're the perfect summer veg, sliced diagonally, brushed with olive oil, garlic and seasoning and bunged on the barbecue or griddle. Alternatively, slice them lengthways, make a ridge all the way down the middle and stuff them with fresh tomatoes, garlic and olive oil before sticking them in the oven for 20 minutes. Some people even deep-fry the flowers.
Courgettes are also really easy to grow, although you should give yourself plenty of room as the yellow flowers are enormous and the plants themselves can take up a fair bit of space on your plot. If you are limited, grow just one in a large pot and it should produce a good number of courgettes.
They thrive in hot summers in full sun and should be sown from April until June and harvested from the middle of summer until the first frosts.
Courgettes need fertile, moist soil, so it's beneficial to add plenty of organic matter to the soil before you start. Seeds should be sown individually in small pots indoors and then hardened off and planted out after the last frosts, when they have two or three leaves. Leave it later to sow outdoors and sow two seeds per station, thinning out to one seedling when possible.
Never let them dry out and feed them regularly with a liquid fertiliser when the fruit starts to form. Courgettes are best when picked young and thin. Slice them off using a kitchen knife rather than tugging at them.
Good varieties include 'Venus', a compact plant producing bumper crops of dark green courgettes, and 'Black Forest', a climbing cultivar good for training over trellis. For a brighter-looking variety, try the yellow 'Gold Rush'.
Three ways to... Companion plant for fruit trees.
1. Plant clover, alfalfa and other leguminous plants amid the grass in orchards for a better harvest (although pears don't like anything underneath them and prefer to be mulched).
2. Plant early nectar and pollen sources such as Limnanthes douglasii near peaches and pears, to attract bees in time for the fruit flowers.
3. Stinging nettles are believed to improve the keeping qualities of fruit growing near them.
What to do this week
:: Clean around globe artichokes, lightly fork the ground and topdress with compost prior to soaking. This will encourage suckers to grow, which can then be detached and potted in autumn.
:: Take cuttings from the unflowered shoots of penstemons.
:: Lift globe beetroot when they are about the size of tennis balls. Twist off the leaves before cleaning and storing in moist sand.
:: Clear out old, rotten water lily leaves from the pond, along with blanket weed.
:: Plant daffodils between late August and late September.
:: Trim pyracantha.
:: Prune redcurrant and blackcurrant bushes.
:: Take cuttings of alpines.
:: Continue to harvest green beans, courgettes, marrows, tomatoes and lettuce.
:: Border carnations and pinks which were layered during July should be rooted and can be severed from the parent plant and planted into a prepared bed, unless you live in a cold area, where they are best overwintered in a frame.
:: Tie tall flower stems of dahlias to prevent wind damage and continue to cut blooms for the house.
:: Continue watering outdoor crops including tomatoes to encourage more fruits.