In the Garden:
Even a small planting of bulbs can have impact, especially when planted near the house so that they can be readily enjoyed.
Bulbs from Another Perspective
Okay, let's be blunt here. Spring-blooming bulbs is not my favorite topic. Not that I don't like them. I love seeing masses of tulips in someone else's yard, but integrating them into my own yard has always been a challenge. I suppose my irritation with the subject relates to my mother's love of daffodils. She planted them everywhere in her garden, then we had to look at the fading foliage for what seemed like months afterward as well as fight for space for planting other flowers. One alternative is at the famous garden of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst in England: a walled-off garden filled only with spring bulbs. I'm not sure how this area was used the rest of the year, but I like the idea of isolating them into their own special area.
Still, for most of us, that really isn't a viable solution. So in considering this subject, I thought about the ways that spring-blooming bulbs have brought the most joy either to me personally or ways that I would like to use them, if time and energy were available.
Mass-Plantings of Early Bulbs in the Lawn
One of my all-time favorite spring-bulb plantings is in someone else's yard. There are several very large trees surrounded by lawn. Planted beneath the trees are hundreds of crocus. The carpet of purple is stupendous for a few weeks in early March. Because it is an early-blooming variety, the area can be left unmowed until April without being totally offensive.
A variation on this theme is to naturalize daffodils bulbs in an area of the yard that can be left unmowed for a long enough period of time to let the bulb foliage mature. An orchard is the classic solution, such as at Englishman Christopher Lloyd's garden. Again, this works best with early-blooming varieties.
Near an Entrance
My mother always had a small planting of early blooming bulbs near her front door. Starting in January, she would regularly go out to watch their progress as they emerged from the frozen ground, reminding her that spring would come again. Planting close to an entrance means that the diminutive flowers are easily seen; by blooming early, their foliage also matures early, so that it has faded by annual-planting time. Her favorites were the early crocus, snowdrops, Siberian squill, and the dwarf iris Iris reticulata. Other possibilities include winter aconite, the small-growing species tulips, and early daffodils.
While the bulb industry would love for each of us to plant hundreds of bulbs each fall, I, for one, run out of energy about the time of bulb planting. My solution is to choose several specific colors or types of bulbs each year and plant them in small groups of three or five, spotting them among perennial and shrub beds and borders. This means that, over time, my yard will someday have a wide range of spring-flowering bulbs. There will be no traffic-stopping effect, but they will be well-integrated into the landscape. The key to success is labeling well and keeping the labels in place.
Plant Among Deciduous Shrubs
A variety of deciduous shrubs are planted in a very wide area in front of my house. Among these are plantings of long-blooming daffodils, such as 'Ice Follies'. The bulbs make an impact early, then the foliage is somewhat obscured as the shrubs leaf out.
What may be considered lesser-known bulbs have been the most pleasurable addition to my yard for a variety of reasons. Many of these bloom in late spring, and the fading foliage seems to disappear much more readily among the surrounding perennials. Wood hyacinths live for years in a shady garden, producing large clumps of slender foliage and wonderful, airy flower spikes in shades of blue, white, or pink.
Nectaroscordum produces 24- to 36-inch flower stems with pink-and-green bell-shaped flowers in loose, open clusters. Try these planted among ground covers, such as ivy or periwinkle, as well as at the middle to back of flower borders.
Camassias are native bulbs with airy spikes of soft blue-violet flowers. There are several different species and cultivars, including a variegated one. They bloom about the same time as columbines and are easily blended into a perennial border.
Fritillaria is a genus with a wide variety of sizes and shapes. A few bulbs of the crown imperial is all that is needed to make an impact. Be sure to explore some of the other members of this genus, including the black fritillaria and the diminutive, checkerboard guinea hen flower.
Alliums, or the flowering onions, are unique, exotic, and great fun. They extend the bulb-flowering season with their spheres of color. Although there are types that grow only about a foot tall, the ones that make people stop and look are the tall globes that bloom in May and June, such as 'Gladiator' and 'Globemaster'. Generally, they dry well, with Allium schubertii being the most spectacular.
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