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Bulb Gardens Planted Now
Will Bring Spring Rewards

Centre of the City, Toronto, September/October 2004

So tulips are red– daffodils yellow, and in general, bulbs are boring. Well, maybe for your grandmother. How about tulips with fringes, or stripes, or ruffles, tulips from white, to pink, to nearly black. There are tall ones, short ones, and low–growing ones with multi–coloured open faces. And pink daffodils. Yes, pink. No longer does the bulb garden have to look like it did at granny’s house.

The term ’bulb’ includes many plant species in addition to tulips and daffodils. Lilies <lilium>, for example, corms <crocus>, tubers <caladium>, tuberous roots <eranthis cilicica or Winter Aconite> and rhizomes <bearded iris> are also classed as bulbs. They are generally reliable, need very little maintenance, and the earliest can bloom while the snow is still melting. All you need to do is plan for them now.

If you have never planted bulbs before, there are some guidelines that may help to get you started. When buying bulbs;
  • As a general rule, the smaller the bulb, the greater the number required for a good display.
  • Large and medium–sized bulbs are generally a better buy.
  • With daffodils especially, size really does matter. Get larger bulbs – smaller ones may take two or three years after planting to flower.
  • Summer flowering bulbs include hardy and non–hardy species. Cana, caladium, dahlia and gladioli are not hardy in our area, for example. These non–hardy bulbs must be lifted out of the garden for each winter and stored in a cool <42 degrees F> location to prevent sprouting. Make sure you’re buying hardy bulbs, if you don’t want this bother.
  • Examine bulbs carefully and choose ones that are plump and firm, and show no signs of injury or rot.

When planting your bulbs– - A rule of thumb when planting is that the bulb should be covered with twice its own depth of soil.
- Bulbs planted too deeply will produce foliage, but blooms may be weak or absent. Make sure you follow depth instructions on the package. If you add or amend your soil around bulb beds after they’ve been planted, be sure to raise them to the correct depth for next year.
- Plant iris just below the soil surface.
- Plant most bulbs with the pointy end up. If there is no pointy end, but there are eyes or buds, plant with these facing up.
- For most bulbs, soil should be well–drained and fertile, amended with organic matter. If you wish, add a bulb booster fertilizer of a 9–8–6 mixture prior to planting and thoroughly work it into the soil.
- Squirrels quite often make a meal of tulip bulbs. If squirrels are a problem in your neighbourhood, cover the bulb area with chicken wire.
- Generally, plant crocus, scillas and narcissi from mid–September to mid–October, tulips from mid–October to mid–November. If you miss the specific window, you can still plant until the ground is frozen, but they will flower a bit later.

Bulbs are available in many big box stores, and through gardening centres, and you can also shop through bulb catalogues. For more blooms per bulb, look at bouquet varieties of both tulips and daffodils, including tulipa ’Orange Bouquet’, narcissus tazetta ’Earlicheer’ bouquet daffodils and the chameleon tulip, tulipa ’Antoinette’ which starts out starts yellow, develops pink edges, and ends up salmon orange. Bouquet varieties produce 10–15 blooms per stem, creating a much more lush effect. For something really different, consider narcissus ’Rip Van Winkle’, a very early–blooming daffodil with a starburst appearance instead of the usual trumpet. Or, if you like the trumpet, another early bloomer; narcissus ’Mon Cherie’, is white with a ruffled pink centre. Other pink or pink⁄white variations include ’Pink Charm’, ’Accent’ and ’Satin Pink’.

Whether you plant in large groupings or in clusters depends on your ultimate goal for the bed. Be creative, and combine bulbs with other plants in a way that suits your garden, taste and maintenance needs. For example, try a combination of a lavender–mauve ’Violet Beauty’ and pale yellow ’Sancerre’ tulips in two groupings with an overlapping centre. As early flowering bulbs have finished their cycle before most of the garden gets going, consider plantings around your larger perennials where the fallen bulb foliage will be masked after bloom. Remember that bulb foliage should be left to yellow , then removed, to strengthen the bulb for next year.

If you want colour before plants usually appear in your garden, consider planting small bulbs around a large sunny rock, for example. The rock, warmed by early spring sun, transmits that warmth into the soil. Bulbs planted there may appear up to two weeks ahead of those planted in the open garden. Likewise, daffodils planted in dappled shade rather than full sun will sometimes extend their bloom period.

Create a stunning bed of rich colour with the deep wine–red peony–like flower of tulipa ’Uncle Tom’, a tulip with an attitude, growing 18 to 22 inches tall. If bright colour is not your choice, but you still want flowers, consider tulipa ’Jackpot’, a mid–season bloomer with 14–16 inch tall flowers that are almost black with white edges; or the purple–black tulipa ’Queen of Night’ at 24 inches.

When choosing planting location, consider the size of the plant and when it will bloom–
  • Tulips, narcissi, and other bulbs 12–24 inches tall can be grown further back in the garden, to mask their withering foliage with perennials such as hosta..
  • Tulips may flower early spring, mid–spring or late spring, and are categorized by single– and double–flowering types. Late–blooming tulips are usually taller. Planting should consider the other plants in your garden, and how the bulb flowers will be visible.
  • Not all bulbs are for spring bloom alone. Some bloom throughout the summer. Check the bulb packaging before you purchase to make sure you get what you expect.

Where you have groundcover foliage that dies off over winter, consider groupings of smaller bulbs. The blue iris reticulata ’Cantab’ grows up to eight inches tall. In groups of 10–12 minimum, plant it along a rough path, for example, where fallen foliage will be covered by creeping groundcover. Plant snowdrops underneath a periwinkle groundcover – they will pop through and look stunning against the periwinkle’s shiny green leaves. Remember that you need to be able to see these small plants to enjoy them, so plant enough bulbs to make them visible in the landscape. An early bloomer that deserves to be planted where it can be appreciated is tulipa ’Little Beauty’. Growing to 4 inches tall, its wide–open bloom is cherry red with a white and steel blue centre. Consider this planting, in larger numbers, along a pathway leading to the front door, perhaps bordered by 6–8 inch tall siberian squill <scilla siberica>. Crocus, scillas and snowdrops <galanthus> benefit from planting in groups of twenty–five or more. There are many crocus choices available, including the fall–blooming crocus vernus ’Sativus’, ’Pickwick’ and ’Remembrance’. Great in drifts around the evergreen shrubs in your garden, they are shallow–rooted and will not compete with the shrub.

Don’t forget the larger bulb varieties. To add some ’wow’ at the back of your perennial border, consider a grouping of allium giganteum ’Globemaster’. These purple puff–ball blooms grow up to ten inches across on 36–inch tall stems. Even after their blooms fade, the flower structure remains to provide architectural interest in any garden. Stunning in groups, you can plant them with various shorter allium cousins in front, or with other perennials such as the bulb anemone blanda ’Blue Shades’ or Asiatic lilies like as lilium ’Esther’, a beauty in its own right.

With the availability of such a variety in colours, textures and sizes, and their low–maintenance requirements, bulbs deserve renewed consideration for your garden. After all, if you don’t like where you plant them this year, they are quite happy to be lifted and moved somewhere else next summer.

Helen Kirkup
HMK Consultants
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Also by Helen Kirkup:
The Kirkups: Pioneers & Travellers
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