This is the first garden where I’ve grown ornamental alliums, having previously only been aware of their edible cousins, such as onions, garlic and chives. I’m glad to have discovered them as they form a neat transition from the bright yellows and reds of my spring garden to the cooler blues and mauve tones of early summer.
May and June is peak allium time here and I love how their mauve flowers heads bobble above the daily expanding foliage of my later flowering perennials. I also made a surprising discovery via my A.
‘Purple Sensation’ flowers; on sunny days these track the sunshine round the garden, in turn forming a natural sundial if I’ve forgotten my watch.
Bees also love alliums and it’s a delight to watch them work their way around a flower head. These can have hundreds of individual flowers, so a bee can take quite a while taking its fill of nectar and pollen. It’s not unusual to find several of them working a single flower head at once, and it’s amusing to see how they skirt around one another without touching.
Individual flowering time can be quite short, but this doesn’t mean they lose their garden interest as the post-flower dried heads can last for many months. This can prove a double edged sword as I’ve found the resultant seeds are pretty viable in my garden. Still, I consider they’re paying me a compliment; multiplying alliums means happy alliums.
To reduce the self-seeding, I’m also using them for dried flower arrangements, along with echinacea flower cones, plus eryngium and scabious flowers. I’m admiring a jugful of them on my study windowsill as I write this piece.
Five of my favourites
Allium christophii – these have large steely-purple flower heads which look almost alien in my large terrace bed, especially after rain.
Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’ (AGM) – I call this my ‘work horse allium’ as it has spread freely through my garden. Soon it’ll be time to edit some of them out so the competing bulbs don’t result in smaller flowers.
Allium schubertii – these look like fireworks have exploded in my front garden, as the flowers are borne on long individual stems which radiate outwards.
Allium sphaerocephalon – also called the drumstick allium due to their smaller heads. Bees go mad for these in my garden when they flower in July. The foliage is similar to chives, so it’s not quite as unsightly when the foliage dies down.
Nectaroscordum siculum (formerly Allium siculum) – is new in my double terrace beds this year and I love their umbel-like creamy/pinky/green flower heads, of around a metre high.
Top tips from this year’s Chelsea Flower Show
Chelsea is the prime time to exhibit alliums in the Great Pavilion (as well as featuring in many of the show gardens outside), so I took the opportunity to ask the bulb experts at the show for their top tips…
Ornamental alliums prefer a rich soil, so mulch well if you’re growing in sandy soils and they should thrive. They are relatively drought tolerant, but make sure they are kept well watered from April to July as the root system does not like to dry out.
All alliums are rabbit and deer resistant, so they’re a good choice if these are a problem in your garden. The time to plant them is in the autumn, about 10cms down and in a sunny spot. If you want a more natural look, scatter the bulbs along the ground before planting, in a similar fashion to what’s done with daffodils.
Combine with later flowering perennials and grasses such as geraniums and Stipa gigantea to disguise the unsightly leaves as they die down. I’ve combined them successfully with phlox, eryngiums, echiums, crocosmia, sedums and perennial sunflowers. Also, the combination of mass planted lavender ‘Hidcote’ and alliums looked sensational outside the National Trust’s headquarters in Swindon when I volunteered there.
The experts also recommend
Allium giganteum – is perfect for the back of the border where it can reach nearly 2 metres in height, without the need for staking.
Allium ‘Globemaster’ (AGM) – huge deep violet flower heads (15-20cm across) on stems which reach around 80cm in height.
Allium karavatiense (AGM) – a shorter allium (height 20cm), with a creamy pink flower suitable for the front of the border.
Allium ‘Mount Everest’ – a tall white variety (90cm) to ring the changes from the usual mauves, which looks good planted against dark foliage.
Michelle Chapman is a gardener, freelance writer and blogger from Wiltshire. She is the author of the award winning blog, Veg Plotting, where she writes about her small town garden, seasonal food and anything else which strikes her whilst at her allotment.