Plant cyclamens for winter colour in the garden

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Floral brilliance isn’t something that is immediately associated with late autumn and winter. These are, generally speaking, seasons of muted colours once the fiery-tinted foliage of maples and their like has fallen. So when flowers appear that aren’t remotely intimidated by their surroundings and produce blooms as brightly coloured as any summer bedding scheme, there’s a slight feeling of unease about their lack of sobriety. Well, in my case, that unease is swiftly put on the back burner, as I can’t get enough of hardy cyclamens.

They begin to appear in our gardens in early autumn in the shape of Cyclamen hederifolium, a Mediterranean native found on terrain stretching from Italy to Turkey. As the autumn leaves fall, it pushes up its white or pale-pink flowers to light up gloomy areas, often under trees. I have it planted in a narrow, snaking border that’s backed by bamboos. It’s rather a dimly lit spot on the edge of the garden, beside a brick-and-flint wall, but the pale-pink flowers of the cyclamens, with their pointed, reflexed petals, provide good cheer until almost the end of the year. Attractively marbled, ivy-shaped foliage follows.

My sadness at the fading of those elegant miniature flowers is tempered by the knowledge that, soon, an even brighter and more diminutive species will take over. Cyclamen coum is native to the Black Sea countries of Bulgaria and Turkey, the Caucasus and further south to Israel and Lebanon. In gardens, it blooms from January through to March, forming, in time, a dense and vibrantly colourful carpet of flowers, which may be rich carmine red and almost any shade of pink, paling to pure white. (They’re wonderful companions for Lenten hellebores.)

Among the many garden forms of C. coum, I commend the Pewter Group, with leaves extensively marbled with silver-grey, the better to show off the flowers. The form that rejoices under the name of C. coum f. albissimum Golan Heights is white-flowered, with perhaps the most politically sensitive name of any plant.

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When buying cyclamens, I avoid plants that are sold as large, dormant tubers, which might have been collected in the wild; instead, I opt for younger plants, with tubers 1in or so across, which are already growing in pots and showing plenty of leaf and flower. By choosing them when in bloom, you can be sure of getting a colour selection that appeals.

In the garden, hardy cyclamens give little trouble, provided they have the conditions that suit them-a spot in dappled shade, in well-drained earth that’s been generously enriched with plenty of well-rotted leafmould, is ideal. That’s their enrichment of choice, but any organic matter (aside from over-rich manure) will open up the ground and provide it with the texture and structure they enjoy.

Plant your cyclamens 6in to 9in apart and don’t bury them too deeply-the tubers need to be barely under the surface. By planting so that the compost in the pot is level with the surface of the soil, you won’t go far wrong. In my garden, I mulch around them with a 1in layer of chipped bark. Not only does it show off the flowers and leaves to perfection and prevent them from being splashed by mud, it also provides the perfect conditions for seed germination.

Both species produce lots of seed, sending their capsules down to the ground on spiral stems when the flowers fade. The crevices between the bark provide the perfect nursery site and, as the years pass, their colonies spread more widely.

And if you’re tempted by the larger-flowered florists’ cyclamens sold as Christmas pot plants, remember that they do best in cool, well-lit rooms; a position on a north-facing window sill suits them well. Overwatering spells doom, but a judicious drench applied just at the moment when dryness in the compost causes the dome of leaves to wilt very slightly should do the trick.