Here we are in Portugal, heading for winter. Many gardeners are locking up their tools and gloves, and dusting hands together with a relieved sigh that they can now take a break from gardening until the warmer months.
But this time of year, is perfect for planting your favourite spring bulbs, despite this being a warmer climate than perhaps you are used to. Ideally, you should get all your bulbs planted by December 1st, so they have plenty of time to settle and adequately ‘chill’ before spring arrives.
So, what is it ‘winter chill’, and what does it mean for those who live with warmer winters? Winter chill is necessary for most (but not all!) bulbs to bloom in spring. The prolonged colder temperatures force the bulbs into dormancy, allowing them to rest before their big show. Many daffodils and tulips are notorious for needing this, and the ideal chilling period for most spring-blooming bulbs is 10-14 weeks at 35 to 45°F. Exposing bulbs to these cold temperatures stimulates a bio-chemical response that ‘turns on’ flower formation and initiates root growth, while others require much less. You can even give them a chill in the fridge for up to 6 weeks but don’t freeze them.
Many species need little attention after being planted, will thrive, and with time, form large clumps. Help newly-planted bulbs establish by giving an occasional feed with an organic fertiliser after flowering. Bulbous plants are a good solution for places with difficult conditions, for isolated homes where water is either not available or too precious to be used for irrigation, or for areas that are geographically very hot and dry or have extremely cold winters.
And they can be an important feature in the sustainable garden as they have an extended dormant season and require so little watering, and they are a great addition to an existing garden, offering a lovely surprise when they flower.
So, what can we plant in Portugal?
Well, there is a whole ‘bunch’ of flowers in bulb form that we can plant here, and I will touch on a few.
Daffodils - There are about sixty species of daffodils, growing mainly in Southern Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia. Daffodils are fantastic for pots – use a good quality potting mix, in a lot at least 20cm deep. An option is to add in some well-worked garden soil too, and maybe some bulb food. Plant them 10cm deep in an area that has full sun to partial shade - your deck or terrace would be ideal. They will just need a good deep watering once in a while as the potting mix tends to dry out quickly, and you’ll start seeing leaves popping through around the middle of winter. Just watch out for slugs and snails – they tend to love daffodils. And the advantage of growing them in pots is that when they start dying down and looking a bit scruffy, they are easily moved out of sight! Prune the flower off after blooming, but don’t cut the leaves down until they have turned yellow – if they are cut too soon the bulbs will not flower next season.
Amaryllis belladonna - Popularly named ‘bare naked ladies’, these are native to the southwest Cape of Africa and a common sight in Algarve gardens. The tall, showy soft-to-deep pink flowers appear in September, symbolising the end of summer. Protect them from any frost during any harsh winters, and start them off in sheltered conditions under cover at first. Between September and late November, or March and April (the same season as the bulbs are supplied), pot up in temporary pots in a cool or sheltered spot, and plant them out into borders in late spring. Alternatively, you can plant Amaryllis belladonna directly outside in a sunny, sheltered position with a covering of dry mulch to protect against any anticipated cold.
Iris - There are many, but these three are worth a mention: Iris albicans, known for its white blooms, Iris foetidissima (sometimes called ‘stinky iris’ as its leaves have an unpleasant smell!), and Iris hollandicum, or Dutch Iris, well known for its colourful show of vibrant colours.
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.