Putting it together
Begin by putting soil in the container. You want enough soil so that the terra-cotta pots, which nestle in it, reach just below the container's rim. If you have various pot sizes, consider where the ones to hold the tallest plants should go. Will the planter be viewed from all sides? Place taller plants in the centre. If it's going against a wall, place them at the back.
Fill in the gaps between clay pots with soil, then set in potted plants, keeping in mind the eventual size of the plants. Tulips and hyacinths shoot up, for example, while campanulas mound and spread. To give the display added height and contrasting form, insert pussy willow and dogwood branches between the pots; forsythia also works well. If you can harvest branches in your backyard, so much the better, but many florists and garden centres sell them. "Don't worry if the arrangement doesn't look balanced," Reeves says. "The tulips will shoot up and offset the difference between short plants and tall branches."
Place moss on top to disguise the pots; it also keeps in the moisture. Give the planter a good, solid soaking as soon as the moss is in place.
Next comes hardening-off. Bulbs that have been coddled in warm greenhouses won't react well to an abrupt introduction to April weather, particularly the swings in night temperatures; you need to acclimatize them gradually. For the first few days, for example, place the planter outdoors during the day, but bring it in at night. Inside, place the planter in a cool spot'a screened porch would be ideal. Once the plants have handled that, a dip to three degrees or so probably won't do them any harm. 'You can buy a couple of degrees by keeping the container next to the house,' says Reeves. (Note: if you think the display might be cumbersome to move in and out, consider hardening off plants before setting them in it.)
Water when soil is dry usually about twice a week. Make sure you get your fingers into the soil; the moss may be damp, but the soil in the pots has dried out.
When a pot of blooms is past its prime, move the moss aside, slip out the plastic pot, replace it with a new one and put the moss back. Try exchanging spent red tulips with daffodils, or grape hyacinths with white campanulas, always keeping in mind the relative heights of the plants.
Recycling your bulbs
Forced bulbs may not offer a burst of colour anymore, but that's no reason to discard them. The key to reclaiming potted bulbs for the garden, says John Reeves, is proper handling after they flower. Once you've taken pots out of the display, let the foliage die back, then plant bulbs in well-drained soil in a location with a minimum half-day of sun. Amending the soil first with compost helps the bulbs root faster, so they can regenerate their internal food supply. Carol Cowan at the Netherlands Flowerbulb Information Centre concurs, and says daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, crocus and muscari are good candidates for recycling, but adds some bulbs may not rebloom even if you follow these steps.
Chances are they won't bloom next spring; they need time to readjust their internal timing from the rigours of being forced,' she says. But they may bloom the following and subsequent years. It's worth a try.