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I'm in the process of converting my cottage-style garden into one featuring mainly shrubs and bulbs. Previously my gardening has only ever involved planting Spring flowering bulbs such as snowdrops, daffodils and the like and I've relied on perennials to provide summer colour in the garden. This year, I've attempted to grow some summer flowering bulbs and one which has proved to be successful so far is the allium. These plants have very showy flower heads which consist of many tiny star shaped flowers forming into large globes which seem to hover above the other plants in the border and even after the plant has finished flowering, the seed heads will still add interest to the autumn garden.
The allium is a member of the onion family so it shares common ancestors with wild garlic and chives as well as all varieties of onion. The ornamental allium, however, has been bred purely for it's flower heads, although they still retain several common features with their more edible relatives. The flowers can vary in size from very small globes no more than a couple of inches in diameter to monsters about 9" in diameter and the colours range from deep purples and reds to palest yellow and whites. The variety that I bought from a local garden centre is a mid-sized one called Allium Globemaster which has deep violet flowers and grows to a height of approximately 2 feet 6 inches.
I bought my bulbs from a local independent nursery/garden centre here in Berkshire and paid, if I remember rightly, approximately £3 per bulb. This may seem a bit expensive but, hopefully, I'll be able to propagate new plants from these bulbs after they've become established in the garden.
Growing the bulbs has proved to be easier than I anticipated and as this was my first time, I planted them into large pots rather than directly into the soil, as this also gives me the added advantage of being able to move the pots around to various locations in the garden and, hopefully, fill in those blank spaces which can suddenly appear in the borders. The bulbs need to be planted in early Autumn and, as a rule of thumb, to a depth of approximately four times the diameter of the bulb and bulbs need to be spaced depending on their size and eventual flowering height. For large alliums, a space of approximately 8 inches is required although about half that is needed for smaller varieties. Spacing wasn't a issue for me, however, as I only bought 2 bulbs which I intended to use as spot plants and I planted each into its own pot anyway. These bulbs are sun lovers and thrive in a dry and sunny situation. That being said, one of mine is actually positioned in dappled shade and has still flowered.
Once planted, I buried the two pots into the ground and waited for Mother Nature to do the rest. After the dreadful winter of 2010/11, I didn't really expect the bulbs to survive but Globemaster is obviously a very hardy variety and both duly pushed through the soil once the sun was high enough in the sky to begin to warm up the soil. To my delight, both bulbs have flowered and the deep lavender coloured globes which are about 6" or more in diameter, gently sway in the breeze on their fairly thick and sturdy stems and are a delight to look at. The bees obviously find them delightful, too, and they have been constantly visiting each individual flower of the globes right through the flowering time.
These plants are all about the flower and the foliage is really very ordinary looking and, if my plants are anything to go by, fairly floppy and unattractive. To resolve this problem, I dug up the pots and moved them further back into the middle of the border so that their foliage is disguised by the more attractive leaf forms of other plants.
If I'd planted the bulbs directly into the soil, it would probably be OK to leave them there for a year or so but because my bulbs have been planted into pots, I'll be removing the bulbs from their pots in the Autumn and beginning the process all over again. Now I know the size and flowering habit of Allium Globemaster, I'll probably plant directly into the border where I can leave them for a couple of years. After that time, hopefully, when I dig up the bulbs, I should be able to divide the clumps and there should also be tiny bulbils or offsets forming which can be removed and potted on to produce new plants. Alliums can be grown from seed but be aware if taking seed from your plants, they probably will not replicate that plant as most allium bulbs are hybrids and therefore will revert to the original stock.
Pests and Diseases:
As alliums belong to the onion family, they can be prone to the same pests and diseases such as mildew and onion fly. Personal experience has shown me that as the bulbs were planted into a flowering border, there hasn't been any infestations that I can see, and even the slugs and snails seem to have left the foliage alone, although that could be down to the very dry Spring and the fact that I put crushed egg shells around the plants when they first appeared.
I highly recommend growing alliums in your garden. They're easy to grow and look after and, if the gardening books are to believed, fairly easy to maintain and propagate year after year. The bulbs may be pretty expensive but you only need to buy a couple to provide your garden with a little bit of the wow factor.