As summer draws to a close, the peak time for planting spring-flowering bulbs will soon be upon us. Bulbs are magical; pop those dull brownish lumps into the ground and your garden will explode with color next spring—tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths galore.
Several books released in the past few years break down the process of planting, growing, and maintaining bulbs; these books include The Complete Practical Handbook of Garden Bulbs, Smart Guide: Perennials and Bulbs,
Spring Bulbs Daffodils, Tulips, and Hyacinths, and Gardener's Guide to Bulbs. These heavily illustrated guides offer practical tips from experts on over-wintering, propagating, deadheading, watering, feeding, and other bulb-oriented tasks.
You don't have to be a Master Gardener to recognize tulips or daffodils; these bulbs have been familiar additions to our gardens for years. The poet Amy Lowell described tulips as "platoons of gold-frocked cavalry, with scarlet sabres," while William Wordsworth praised their gold-flowering counterparts: "And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils."
The bulb varieties typically seen in garden displays are tall, formal-looking Darwin tulips (Tulipa) and large-cupped, trumpet daffodils (Narcissus). A completely different effect can be obtained by using less common, but equally dependable, forms of these bulbs. In the medium-to-tall range there is the spidery Turkish tulip and distinctive-looking hybrids such as the lily-flowered tulips (‘Ballade’) and the colorful parrot tulips (‘Flaming Parrot’).
With daffodils, big may be beautiful, but small can be sensational, too. Triandrus types of Narcissus (‘Hawera’) offer multiple flowers per stem on dainty rock gardenplants. Cyclamineus forms of narcissus such as ‘February Gold’ and ‘Tête-à-Tête’ bloom early on 6 to 12 inch stems.
But there is actually a whole world of bulbs beyong the typical tulip; countless lesser-known bulbs, both wild and cultivated, typically they receive little attention from professional landscapers or home gardeners. In fact, the newest book dedicated to bulbs comes out this November; it's called, simply, Bulb. Its author is Anna Pavord, who wrote the 1999 bestseller The Tulip. In Bulb, Pavord selects 540 of her favorite bulbs—from the common to the exotic—and lists them alphabetically from acis to zigadenus.
Small bulbs might not make much of an impact when scattered in clumps of two or three, but don't underestimate their potential; when planted en masse where they can naturalize, these tiny flowers become a force to be reckoned with. Bulbs such as striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides), snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), winter aconite (Eranthis spp.), crocus (Crocus spp.), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa), grape hyacinth (Muscari spp.), squill (Scilla hispanica, syn. Hyacinthoides hispanicus), lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majus), windflower (Anemone blanda), wild onion (Allium spp.), checkered lily (Fritillaria spp.) and many forms of Iris can be effective in mass plantings.
One problem when planting just about any type of bulb (except daffodils) is that is their risk of being eaten. Tulips are the Godiva chocolates of the bulb world; deer love them, as do lots of other critters, such as mice, rabbits and even groundhogs. Adding bone meal to the planting mix can make the bulbs even more tempting to rodents and other scavengers—even pet dogs. Depending on the severity of the winter and the availability of food sources, the bulbs that are generally considered unpopular to hungry critters include Allium, Camassia, Convallaria, Fritillaria, Galanthus, Hyacinth, Narcissus, and Scilla.
Here are a few practical tips for growing any kind of bulb you happen to choose:
- When it comes to planting native species of bulbs, it is important to leave wild populations undisturbed, and to purchase only commercially propagated bulbs from legitimate dealers.
- While daffodils and a lot of the smaller bulbs will multiply, or “naturalize,” the same is not true of tulip bulbs. Those will need to be replaced periodically, as the flowers lose vigor.
- Do not cut back the foliage of any bulb until is has completely fried out. To disguise the dying foliage, plant bulbs with hostas, day lilies, or other plants whose foliage will begin to emerge just as bulbs are dying down.