Andrew Mcindoe gives some ideas on the choice of spring bulbs

ALTHOUGH we have only just returned from the summer holidays, we need little encouragement to go out and choose our spring flowering bulbs. Perhaps it is the heavy green of late summer and the shortening days that make us crave colour.

For both the apprentice gardener and the old hand, there is always something new to try, and some old favourites to revisit. Spring flower bulbs offer good value. For a few pounds, you can plant several clumps of guaranteed spring colour that will make a real impact in your garden.

There is always something new in the world of tulips; no wonder tulips are regarded as one of our favourite flowers. They vary in flower form as well as colour, presenting even more opportunities for adventurous planting designs.

In ancient Persia, the cradle of Tulip civilisation, the fashion was for tulips with goblet-shaped blooms and long, pointed petals. The lily-flowering varieties that we grow today most closely resemble these early tulips.

Lily-flowering tulips have great elegance: graceful flowers on tall stems, appearing fragile but they are actually very strong, weather resistant and long-lasting. Tulipa "Ballerina" is a well-established variety with delicate, graceful blooms of vibrant orange.

For those who like something cool and sophisticated, try Tulipa "Deidre", a graceful green and white beauty with exceptionally elegant, long-lasting flowers. A viridiflora tulip, it is a lovely subject to plant against dark evergreens or between the emerging leaves of hostas.

Tulipa "Lily-Chic" is somewhat shorter, but no less elegant and ideal for pots. Its cherry red blooms are edged and flecked with white, a pleasing combination with the strong, green foliage. Even if the weather is warm, the blooms can stay in good condition for up to four weeks. Tulipa "Virichic" is taller with fascinating flowers of glowing pink streaked with green and silver-grey. Grow where the light will shine through the petals for best effect. If you are a flower arranger, plant a few extra to cut for the house.

Also good for cutting, the parrot tulips have blooms with petals like the plumage of an exotic bird. Parrot tulips tend to have small bulbs; do not be fooled because they will still produce magnificent large blooms. Some tend to be rather heavy for their stems, but Tulipa "Snow Parrot" is shorter and stronger with creamy white blooms, feathered with blue and green. Tulipa "Flaming Parrot" is one of the showiest, with golden yellow blooms streaked with scarlet. It is wonderful in a large pot with wallflowers. The feathered blooms of Tulipa "Black Parrot" are a striking addition to the border, especially displayed against a backdrop of lime-green unfurling leaves.

Tulips prefer well-drained soil. Originating from the eastern Mediterranean, they resent cold, wet conditions and, on heavy clay, rarely survive. They make ideal subjects for pots and containers, but are never as good a second season, so plant fresh stock each year; after all they are inexpensive. Although now is the time to buy, do not plant tulips straight away. Store them in a cool, airy place and plant in late October or early November. Early planting can result in premature growth and a susceptibility to disease.

Successful planting is not all about star plants; subjects that make good mixers are equally important. Although much maligned for their invasive properties, grape hyacinths. Muscari, are widely used between other bulbs in planting schemes.

Their long-lasting, fragrant, sapphire-blue flowers mix with any other colour and their foliage emerges early, helping to give green ground cover.

Blue shows up well in low light so these are useful bulbs to naturalise under mature shrubs and roses for early colour.

* Unwins Book of Bulbs, by Andrew McIndoe, published by Westland Horticulture, price £9.99, is the ultimate guide to getting the best from this wonderful group of garden plants with hundreds of ideas for planting indoors, in pots on the patio, in beds and borders and in grass under trees