As the days shorten and the garden begins to wind down, we say a sad farewell to the summer. But there are still plenty of autumn-flowering bulbs to fill the gaps left by fading perennials. And even as winter takes hold, there are a few tough little winter flowering bulbs that are happy to brave the cold and bring a welcome splash of colour to brighten the darkest days of the year.
For the best displays, a little forward planning is required. Begin to plant autumn and winter flowering bulbs, corms and tubers in borders and containers in spring. As a rule of thumb, most bulbs should be planted at 3 times their depth, but there are a few exceptions so it’s worth checking our planting depth table in our ‘How to grow bulbs’ article.
There are plenty of autumn and winter bulbs to choose from, but if you need some inspiration take a look at our top 10 pick of bulbs that flower in autumn and winter.
Crocuses are some of the best known of the autumn bulbs for the garden. These jewels of the autumn force their blooms through the fallen leaves to create a festival of colour, even before their foliage appears. Try the unusual Turkish species, Crocus cancellatus with its stunning blue marbled petals - plant it among silver birch stems for an exquisite colour combination. Autumn crocus can be spoiled by wet weather so plant them beneath trees and shrubs where their brilliant display will be protected from heavy rains.
The striking blooms of these tuberous plants start to open in summer, but are at their best from August to September, bridging gaps in borders as other perennials begin to tire. Dahlias flower in an extraordinary range of rich colours making them useful for creating an exotic effect in hot-coloured borders. They even come in a range of sizes from dwarf dahlias to towering types like Dahlia ‘Blue Wish’ which look fabulous at the back of borders. Impress the neighbours with a dinner plate variety such as Dahlia ‘XXXL Bicolour’ - its giant flowers reach up to 30cm (12") across!
Perfect for a dramatic end to the season! A bold block of cerise pink nerine flowers make a breathtaking sight on a bright autumn morning. These colourful bulbs save their display until September or even later, while the long strap-like foliage remains intact over winter, unscathed by cold weather. Nerine Lilies are surprisingly easy to establish and Nerine bowdenii is perfectly hardy in the UK, despite its South African origins.
Closely resembling Crocus, Sternbergia make excellent bulbs for autumn colour at the end of the year. Sprinkle them throughout rockeries or plant these hardy bulbs in large naturalised groups for a big impact. Sternbergia lutea bulbs are surprisingly vigorous in the right location and enjoy reasonably poor soils with sharp drainage. Give them a really sunny position where the bulbs can bake in the summer sun.
An established carpet of Autumn flowering Cyclamen is a real delight to see. These well loved corms are particularly useful for brightening up those dry shady areas beneath trees, where other plants struggle to grow and make excellent woodland autumn bulbs. Cyclamen hederifolium is the usual choice for autumn flowers. It’s silvery, marbled leaves follow the sugar pink and white blooms, remaining unscathed through winter weather, before dying back for a dormant summer.
Undoubtedly the most elegant autumn flowering bulb you’ll find! Wonderfully fragrant flowers begin to form in late summer on tall, slender stems, and by September this species Gladiolus has really hit its stride. The large white blooms of Gladiolus murielae nod demurely downwards, but cannot hide the striking burgundy blotches at the base of each petal. Enjoy its blooms throughout autumn, but remember to lift the corms as the grassy foliage dies back - these sophisticated beauties have a delicate disposition and prefer to spend winter in a cool, dry shed rather than face the cold outside.
Tuberous Begonias are the most glamorous bulbs for adding a bright colour accent to shady patios. Their beautiful flowers are produced over an incredibly long period, from summer all the way through to the first frosts in November. These are perfect candidates for a window box or hanging basket - choose a fragrant variety such as Begonia 'Fragrant Falls' to hang close to doorways where you can appreciate them at their best.
Cyclamen coum takes up the mantel from its autumn flowering cousin Cyclamen hederifolium. Braving the cold winter weather as early as January, the pretty pink blooms emerge ahead of the foliage which later forms a carpet of silver-marbled leaves. Whilst C. hederifolium prefers dry shade, Cyclamen coum enjoys a damper soil, thriving in moist shade beneath trees and associating beautifully with snowdrops.
This classic winter bulb has endless appeal. With so many different species and varieties to choose from, the snowdrop has gained almost fanatical popularity and galanthophiles pay enormous sums for a single bulb. But you don’t need to break the bank to enjoy these winter beauties. Try the Galanthus elwesii, the giant, honey-scented snowdrop or Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’, the double flowered variety. For natural looking drifts, gently cast the bulbs across the planting area and plant them exactly where they land.
These cheery winter aconite bulbs produce golden, cup-shaped flowers surrounded by a green collar of leaves - just like buttercups in the depths of winter! Not for the tidy gardener - Winter Aconites almost demand to be grown in bold natural drifts where they can be left undisturbed to die back naturally in spring. They love a moist soil and a shady position, so they’re perfect for under-planting among woodland trees.
Plants and gardens have always been a big part of my life. I can remember helping my Dad to prick out seedlings, even before I could see over the top of the potting bench. As an adult, I trained at Writtle College where I received my degree, BSc. (Hons) Horticulture. After working in a specialist plantsman's nursery, and later, as a consulting arboriculturalist, I joined Thompson & Morgan in 2008. Initially looking after the grounds and coordinating the plant trials, I now support the web team offering horticultural advice online.