I love the arrival of March. It usually means the temperatures are on the way down and the weather seems more settled, although it also often heralds the arrival of autumn rains. March starts the long, slow festival of changing colour that the deciduous trees undergo as they prepare for winter, and the Head Gardener and I both have birthdays in March, although whether that is something to be happy about is a matter of debate.
What March also brings, very excitedly to me at least, is the start of the spring bulb selling season, with daffodils and tulips galore, but also a sprinkling of a bewildering range of other species.
It all starts with the close cousins, the anemones and ranunculus, superficially similar but quite different in many ways. They are the first off the block because they are almost all raised in the Northern Hemisphere, and thus are available sooner than home-grown bulbs that require more processing.
Ranunculus are among the prettiest of all the spring flowering bulbs with a range of bright colours, delightful flower shape and a wonderful succession of blooms from each tuber. A bed or a pot of single coloured flowers is a dramatic sight, while the straight-stemmed flowers are perfect for picking and displaying in the house.
There are even some strains bred for the pot plant market, which flower at much lower height, although I have to say they seem to be missing some of the grace that makes ranunculus such fabulous garden plants.
When you buy ranunculus tubers they will be dormant, and very hard and dry. To overcome this and ensure they kick into growth they could be popped into a paper bag and left in the refrigerator for a few weeks.
This will give them a slow wake up from their long slumber. When they are removed from the cool they can be gently soaked overnight. They can then be planted into a well drained potting mix or directly into the garden if a sunny spot with good drainage can be found.
The tubers consist of claws connected to a central crown at the top - it is important the claws are planted downwards as the tuber will just rot if planted the wrong way around.
I find they do better if I start them in a potting tray, but even then they are a little bit prone to rotting off, so it probably pays to drench the potting mix with a fungicide. They do like to grow in well fertilised soil, so it pays to work some bulb fertiliser into the bed before planting. Good general purpose fertiliser will suffice if you do not have bulb fertiliser, and well composted animal manure is also good if worked in well before planting.
Watering can be a bit tricky as ranunculus do not like to grow in damp soils, but they also do not like drying out, the leaves taking on a yellow cast if they do.
If you keep them well fed and watered, ranunculus should be in flower for months, providing a long-lasting display for the garden and the house alike.
In the distant past ranunculus had a brief period of popularity among the obsessive flower growers in the United Kingdom - along with tulips, anemones and gold-lace polyanthus, they were treasured for the perfection of the flowers. In the case of the ranunculus, that perfection required multiple petals arranged in a globular fashion, each tipped with a contrasting colour.
These exotic beauties have long since died out, but garden ranunculus remain pretty, multi-petalled plants.
On the other hand, their cousins, the anemones, have a much different flower form, available as either a classic poppy shaped, or a raggedy-Ann sort of messy semi-double.
Although my own preference is for the single form, I think the semi-double type is also appealing in a sort of semi-sophisticated way.
There are many species of anemone from around the world, with some delightful dwarf species useful for the rock garden, as well as some autumn flowering perennials which are just coming into flower now, but it is the various forms of A. coronaria that we are concerned with here.
They come as little, odd-shaped tubers - drop shaped with a slightly flattened top, that seems to have the wispy remains of last year's roots. In fact, these are the remains of last year's flowers, and can lead the novice gardener to plant their tubers the wrong way up. Instead, do the same as with the ranunculus - pop them in the fridge for a while and then soak them overnight before planting - point-down into well drained mixture in seed trays. Keep them moist, but do not overwater as this will encourage the same fungous diseases that attack ranunculus. Once they are about 5cm high, plant them out into prepared spots in the garden. If you stagger the planting you will get a better succession of bloom.
The colour range is more restricted among anemones - none of the yellows and oranges found among their cousins, but they have bright scarlet red and a fairly true blue as well as an interesting pink shade. One of my favourites is the semi-double The Governor, which has bright red petals, with glistening white centres around a black crown of stamen. Its single flowered counterpart, Hollandia, is even better in my opinion, like a bright poppy. The single, blue-coloured form is called, unsurprisingly, Blue Poppy while the pink one glories under the name of Sylphide.
All these anemones and ranunculus are perennials, and can be lifted each year and planted out the following autumn, but the truth is you are better to throw them away and start again with new tubers, as they will perform much better.