Think back to last winter when we were so tired of snow and cold temperatures that any color in the landscape sent us over the moon. I know it’s hard, but try. In most places, the snow cover was still the only thing we saw, but in some areas next to the house or the garage, or maybe where the brilliant winter sun went down, there was exposed earth. Now close your eyes and imagine what that spot would have looked like if it had a bunch of bright yellow crocuses blooming. Imagine even more flowers bursting forth as the blanket of snow receded: the main show of crocuses first, followed by daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, alliums and all manner of other bulbs scattered throughout.
Use Your Summer Containers
Those spring displays aren’t just for large property owners. Gardeners who have little or no property can plant their spring flowering bulbs in containers – so don’t toss out those bedraggled summer pots. You can re-use them for a flower fix as early as January, if that’s what you want.
Where to start
As with all gardening decisions, you should decide what it is you like. Choosing bulbs is no easy task. The array is truly mind-boggling. No longer are daffodils just bright yellow. There are hundreds of different types of daffodils, with variations in color, height, fragrance, size of flower, etc. The same is true for crocus, tulips, and hyacinths, not to mention all the other bulbs you could choose.
Is it fragrance to make you swoon, or color collages to shock you into thinking about the warming temperatures, or something that blooms really early to break out of those winter doldrums? Whatever it is, there’s a spring flowering bulb to answer that need. And don’t despair that rodents and deer will destroy your work. There are ways to outsmart them!
Know the rules
There are some things to keep in mind as you organize your planting. First, plant at least 5 of one kind in a group. With bulbs, more is better to make a bold, visible statement. No onesies or twosies. Second, if the planting will only be seen from one side, put your taller specimens in the back. If the view of a mixed planting is from more than one side, then put your taller flowers in the center with successively shorter flowers in front. Third, for a continual show of color, note that different varieties bloom at different times, offering waves of color for weeks on end, spanning the period from early to late spring. Aim for this succession of bloom when you make your choices.
Follow the directions on the bulb packages on to how to plant – this isn’t the time to take a short cut. By planting deeply – you can even go deeper than what’s recommended on the package – you have a better chance of the bulb surviving freezing and thawing cycles and rodent curiosity. The general rule is to plant bulbs two to three times as deep as their diameter and to space large bulbs three to five inches apart, small bulbs one to two inches apart. You can crowd them for a bigger impact. Remember to plant the bulb pointy side up. If you’re unsure of which end is pointy, plant the bulb sideways: rest assured it will make the turn! Water them in lightly after planting. If your season is dry, continue to water these plantings occasionally.
It’s wise to avoid planting bulbs in wet areas – where the snow gets piled, at the bottom of a hill, etc. Bulbs don’t like wet feet and will rot instead of thrive under those conditions. If you have a damp place that you want to put some bulbs, try Camassia. They are mostly blue in color and tolerate damp moist places plus it’s another bulb that deer and rodents don’t like.
Covering the beds with about two inches of mulch after the ground freezes completely is a good idea to keep the ground temperatures from fluctuating wildly during the winter, especially in sunny areas. Coast of Maine has a wide variety of mulches that will do a superb job here.
Where to buy bulbs
You can buy bulbs of all sorts at local garden centers, warehouse stores, home improvement centers, via mail order, and local grocery stores. Your local garden club may be selling them as a fund raiser. So take a moment to look over the options and assess the possibilities. Some of the best values around are mixes and collections where you can get multiples of the same kind of bulb but in different colors and sizes. Or you can buy a collection of different types of bulbs that bloom at the same time. The options seem countless so again choose what you like.
Plan for best color impact
Consider using perennials and bulbs together and what will be leafing out at about the time the bulbs bloom. This way, you can take advantage of the colors of other plants that will play out at the same time. The growth on the emerging perennial will camouflage the bulb foliage which you MUST leave to wither away – it feeds the bulb for next year’s flower. This helps if you are tucking bulbs into an existing garden. You should also consider what to plant in front of your bulbs. Once they have bloomed, the foliage will look pretty awful while it withers so think perennials that will come up and hide that ripening foliage. I’ve had good success using daylilies and asters since both don’t need supplemental water (deadly for dormant bulbs) in a dry year.
If you have yellow tinted bare branches in your landscape, or shrubs which have yellow hues, make sure you use lots of blue and purple colored flowers like grape hyacinths (muscari), crocuses, and iris reticulata. The contrast against the yellow will be striking.
If your shrubs are blue tinted like Colorado blue spruce, try under planting with some yellow crocuses, or one of the tiniest early daffodils called ‘February Gold’. You won’t be disappointed.
You are indeed lucky if you already have old-fashioned bleeding hearts in your landscape. Plant some tall pink Impression tulips behind them. These tulips will intensify the pink colors in the bleeding hearts and make a show stopping display you can enjoy for weeks.
One of the classic combinations is pairing Tête-à-Tête daffodils with squills (scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty’). The tiny blue flowers of the squills play beautifully against the deep yellow of the daffodils.
The challenge of wildlife and spring bulbs
There are several bulbs which are deer resistant. They don’t like alliums, muscari, daffodils (they’re poisonous to four legged critters so nothing eats them either above or below ground), and hyacinths. They do, however, absolutely love tulips. You can plant those tulips inside a deep circle of daffodils. Just be sure to choose daffodils that bloom at approximately the same time as the tulips. You can also surround the tulips with alliums. Again no four-legged creature eats alliums – onions to us – so you can use these to your heart’s content. Their onion smell isn’t detected by humans which allows the enjoyment of their ornamental beauty as well as being a barrier plant. Daffodils and alliums come in many colors, sizes, and bloom times so you should be able to find some you like. You can always use deer repellent sprays which must be repeated when the bulbs are actively growing.
A real unpleasant — for God’s little creatures — spring blooming bulb is Fritillaria.
One type is very tall and comes in deep red, yellow, and orange. Many people interplant Fritillarias with tulips to enjoy their bold statement in the landscape while they prevent the tulips from being eaten. Critters are also not enamored of some bulbs referred to as “minor bulbs:” Glories of the Snow (Chionodoxa), Spring Starflower (Ipheion uniflorum), and Snowdrops (Galanthus).
These are all very early (can you tell by their names?), very small and easy to plant. I’ve put hundreds of them in my front lawn (and plan to purchase more to go in over the next 2 months) as they look great very early in the season. By the time the lawn is ready to be mowed, their foliage has died back and gets cut down along with whatever grass has grown around them.
Dealing with underground thieves
Speaking of eating, rodents (squirrels, field mice, etc.) sometimes feed underground on some bulbs over the course of the winter. You can discourage them by planting in bulb cages (ask about them at your local garden center), using crushed oyster shells (available from your local Agway or animal feed store), and lots of red pepper flakes in the planting holes and around the area. The last two planting aids are not harmful to man or beast, but they sure are unpleasant to noses and paws!
The importance of fertilizing
Plan to fertilize these bulbs at planting time with Coast of Maine Fish Bone Meal.
Follow the directions on the package for how much and where to place it. Plan next spring when the bulbs are actively growing to add some more by lightly applying the food on the surface of the bed as a top dressing and then scratch it into the soil. Next fall you’ll want to fertilize them again and keep to this schedule for the future.
Using Bulbs in Containers
As for re-using those containers, as long as your bulbs are chilled, you can get those spring flowers on YOUR schedule. Chilled bulbs are available in the retail market or you can chill them yourself in a shed, unheated attached garage, basement, or refrigerator. With the exception of those labeled “paperwhites,” bulbs need above freezing temperatures of less than 50 degrees to get properly chilled. Twelve to 16 weeks of cold temperatures should do the trick. You can then take them out into warmer air, and plant them up to enjoy when they bloom 2 to 3 weeks later.
So get out and plant a few of these beauties. As Horace Walpole said in 1780, “All gardening is landscape painting.” And I can’t think of a better way to put brush to canvas than with some spring flowering bulbs.
Written by Lorraine Ballato, author of Success With Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide