A look at a trial of new daffodils and tulips to find out whether new varieties are better than old favourites - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson
With a wide choice of spring bulbs now available in garden centres and from bulb specialists, it's difficult to know which varieties to choose and is often tempting to stay with old favourites.
But there is a flurry of new bulbs worth trying, according to a trial of daffodils and tulips by Which? Gardening, the Consumers' Association magazine, which also suggests that new varieties produce better results than some of the older types.
Triallists found that the new bulbs had a more regular height and consistent flowering time, giving an overall better display than the older ones.
Last autumn, triallists tested 53 new types of spring-flowering daffodils and tulips, growing them alongside five well-established varieties to use as a comparison. The bulbs were planted in early November, the narcissus twice their own depth and tulips three times their depth.
The bulbs had to withstand baking sun, high winds and torrential rain in spring.
Among the recommended daffodils were Narcissus 'Lieke' (Walkers Bulbs), which was the longest-lasting bloom, whose dainty flowers have a green eye and delicious scent. It bloomed for 45 days, producing three stems from each bulb and three flowers on each stem from April to May, the 45cm stems staying upright despite heavy downpours.
Other daffodil winners included the dwarf 'Sweet Love' (Peter Nyssen; Unwins), which produced the best scent, while the small, nodding, cream flowers with a yellow centre shed the rain with ease, and 'Swoop' (De Jaeger), another pint-sized type which produced the most flowers of all the varieties. From 23 bulbs, more than 80 stems were produced, with swept-back yellow petals and nodding heads, perfect for naturalising around trees and woodland.
Many of the new tulips trialled also gave an excellent display, including Tulipa 'Dior' (HW Hyde & Son), which began to flower early, in April, producing several large double flowers in a luxurious shade of pink at the top of each stem.
If you're looking for unusual, the tulip 'Green Star' (Sarah Raven) may suit you, with its slender, elegant green flowers with cream tips held on long straight stems, daring enough to catch the eye but without jarring. They were grown in pots with other tulips and found to be great companions for pinks, whites, purples and striped varieties, flowering in May and reaching a height of 45cm.
Other stars of the show included T. 'Black Jack' (Peter Nyssen), one of the darkest varieties with blooms with a velvety sheen which flowered earlier than old favourite 'Queen of Night' and persisted for five weeks. They have long straight stems which would be good for cutting and combine well with white and pink tulips.
Those who want their tulips to withstand pounding rain should plump for T. 'La Belle Epoque', whose fully double apricot flowers, reminiscent of a peony, continued flowering through the rain.
The best new parrot tulip was 'Irene Parrot' (Peter Nyssen), bred from the popular 'Prinses Irene' and has mid-sized orange flowers that are frilled, cut and flamed to give an exotic look. Unlike other parrot tulips, it didn't flop under the weight of heavy rain during the trial and continued to flower for 31 days.
Stocks of new varieties of bulb can be limited so order them now.
:: Full details of the trial are in the September issue of Which? Gardening. Sign up to Which? for a one-month trial for £1. For more information, visit www.which.co.uk/signup
Best of the bunch - Physalis (Chinese lantern)
These unusual perennials, with their golden papery lantern-like seedheads around the edible fruits, come into their own in the autumn.
The eye-catching lanterns are also great for cutting and using as dried-plant material for winter flower arrangements, by cutting the fruiting stems as the lanterns turn in colour and hanging them upside down in an airing cupboard to dry.
They do flower in summer, although the white blooms, which look a bit like potato flowers, are insignificant.
It's best to grow physalis away from other plants as their underground stems are invasive. They will grow in virtually any soil in sun or shade, but put them in shade, dry areas under trees and shrubs where little else will grow, rather than in borders with other plants.
If you do plant them with other plants, cut around the crown with a spade each autumn, to stop them taking over. The most popular variety is P. alkekengi 'Franchetii', while named varieties such as 'Gigantea' are harder to find.
Good enough to eat - Harvesting sweetcorn
Sweetcorn straight from the plant tastes so different to the shop-bought varieties, especially if it is cooked immediately, because the sugars start to turn to starch as soon as the cob is removed from its parent.
If you're growing sweetcorn for the first time, you may be wondering about the best time to harvest the cobs while they're at their plumpest and juiciest and before they begin to go over.
Look at the tassels on the end of the plants. If they are starting to shrivel, it's a sign the corn may be ready.
Peel back the leafy sheaf and gently press your thumbnail into a grain. If the cob is ready, a creamy liquid will squirt out. If the liquid is watery, leave the cob a few days and test it again.
Once picked, eat the corn as soon as possible, steamed and served with butter and black pepper, or cook it in its husk on the barbecue.
Keep harvesting through September but stop once the grains are doughy when pressed with your nail, as this is a sign that the cobs are over-ripe.
Three ways to... protect plants in winter
1. Cover tender or young plants with cloches, netting, newspaper or old woollens if frosts are forecast.
2. Store bulbs, corms and tubers in a frost-free garage or windowless shed.
3. Pot up tender perennials, cutting back the shoots on established plants to about 10-15cm to keep them compact and save space, and move them into a greenhouse.
What to do this week
:: Store apples and pears for use over the winter.
:: Sow hardy annuals to be overwintered outdoors in cold areas. They may require protecting with cloches or horticultural fleece over the winter.
:: Move late-flowering chrysanthemums in pots into the greenhouse before the first frost.
:: Continue to remove weeds so that they do not shed seeds which will remain in the soil over the winter.
:: Keep borders tidy by cutting back flowered stems of border perennials.
:: Now that dahlias are flowering, mark the best ones of each variety so that they can be propagated for next year.
:: Protect ripening plums and cherries from birds if you can and pick the fruit as it becomes ripe.
:: Cover the rows of perpetual (autumn) strawberries with cloches or horticultural fleece at night when it becomes cold, to help them to ripen.
:: Finish cutting out fruited shoots and tying in the replacements on fan-trained peach trees.
:: Take cuttings of tender perennials including pelargoniums, fuchsias and penstemons, which can be overwintered under cover.
:: Reduce ventilation and watering on vines in the greenhouse as they ripen.
:: Lift clumps of chives and divide them into manageable segments, plant them in large pots, water well and leave the pots outside so that the cold induces dormancy. In December they can be brought in to produce early shoots next year. French tarragon, mint and sorrel can also be forced in this way.