Spring-bloomers aren’t the only bulbs to plant in autumn. You can enjoy instant colour and extend the season with Jersey lilies or nerines, which are available from garden centres until the end of October. These floral fireworks are a welcome flash of colour as the temperature drops and the days get shorter. For maximum impact grow them in containers in a sunny spot on the patio and when the first frost is forecast bring them indoors.
Cousins of the ever-popular houseplant amaryllis, nerines are similarly strikingly beautiful with flowers that are made up of six narrow, often crimped or twisted petals, which are held in loose spherical heads made up of around eight flowers on top of 24cm tall stiff, leafless stems.
The slender curled petals of nerines come in bubble gum pink, cherry and salmon tones and stand out best against a dark or evergreen backdrop. They also look stunning when planted in a dry sunny border in front of a wall clothed with the smoky purple leaves of Vitis Purpurea.
Thompson & Morgan offer a nerine collection comprising of the varieties Isabel. Pink, Alba and Stefani.These varieties are easy to grow, and produce an impressive display of brightly coloured funnel-shaped blooms. For best results, grow them in a block or a thick row, or randomly plant them in an autumn border where their faint musky scent carries on the autumn breeze
It flowers outdoors from September to early November, depending on temperature and site. The flowers are long-lasting in the garden and keep going when cut for indoor decoration. The strap-like leaves emerge after flowering and survive the winter undamaged.
The genus Nerine, named after the sea nymphs of Greek mythology, belongs to the Amaryllidaceae (amaryllis) family of herbaceous perennials, as do daffodils and snowdrops, although the flowers look more like lilies.
For many years it was thought that nerines came from Japan, but their native home is, in fact, South Africa. The bulbs were first brought to Britain from South Africa by Cornish Bowden in 1903, hence the name. Nerine sarniensis became naturalised when a ship from Japan was wrecked on the coast of Guernsey in the 17th century.
There are about 30 species, but only a couple are reliably hardy outdoors in the Britain — N. bowdenii and N. undulata. The former can withstand freezing temperatures, as low as -15C.
A number of species are grown under glass for cut flowers, especially in the Netherlands. Among them are Nerine sarniensis var. corusca Major and the white-flowered Nerine flexuosa Alba
When buying bulbs, ensure that you get true, hardy Nerine bowdenii. The bulbs are easy to recognise being quite large, elongated and shaped like old-fashioned Chianti bottles.
Care should be taken when selecting a suitable spot in the garden if they are to establish quickly and flower early. Choose a sunny, well-drained spot such as the base of a south-facing wall.
Nerines thrive in hot summers but struggle in cold, wet winters. Opinion is divided about planting depth; some say that you need 6cm of soil above the bulb to protect from frost damage, others prefer the bulbs to half-emerge from the soil. A clump in my garden flourished and multiplied for more than 20 years almost at the soil surface.
Bulbs should be planted in autumn or early winter, spaced 7-10cm apart. Give them a good mulch to protect from frost in the first year until they are fully established. Once planted, try not to disturb them — they like to grow in a dense clump. Don’t worry if the flowering is poor in the first year after planting
In the wild nerines grow in very poor soil but when plants are grown in richer soil they will grow bigger with more leaves, but at the expense of flowers. A well-drained coarse, sandy soil, low in nitrogen, is recommended for a maximum number of iridescent blooms.
Colchicums and cyclamen are good companions but they are not good bedfellows for narcissus. They look great against dark, evergreen backdrops or mixed with blue perennials such as Salvia patens. If the nerines are planted at the base of a south-facing wall, plant a star jasmine, Trachelospermum jasminioides to create an eye-catching combo.
White flowered nerines look good when planted in a narrow border against a sunny wall with a backdrop of Star jasmine. This evergreen woody climber has glossy dark-green leaves and produces fragrant creamy-white flowers in mid to late summer, which are followed by long seedpods
In cold areas, mulch clumps when they’ve finished flowering for winter protection. If you think the flowers are getting less, year on year, feed in summer with a potash-rich fertiliser. Nerines hate disturbance, so once planted try to avoid moving them. After planting, the bulbs should grow some strap shaped leaves until mid summer, and then they will die down. If we have a wet summer they may remain green. In September/October flower spikes will emerge and bloom without the foliage.
If there are no blooms in the first autumn, don’t worry. Nerines are notoriously temperamental when they have been moved/replanted. They will flower the following year. After many years the bulbs will become congested. Do not divide them as they flower much better when grown like this.
Once established, nerines will produce enough blooms for cutting and maybe even selling at your garden gate. They are excellent for making contemporary arrangements and hand-tied bouquets. The individual florets can also be used as a wedding corsage