In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
September, 2005
Regional Report

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1897

By the time the foliage on these tulips begins to yellow, the forget-me-nots, daylilies, phlox, and peonies will be large enough to hide it.

Spring Bulb Dilemma

We all fantasize about growing a garden that is perfectly colorful all season long. We like the idea of a mixed border where annual bedding plants parade in full color from spring to fall, accentuating the glorious performance of our carefully chosen perennials and flowering shrubs. Then autumn foliage and brightly hued berries and shaded bark and the textured and multi-toned evergreens take over and carry the display all winter.

But let's face it, by spring we are ready for flowers with a capital "F." That means spring-blooming bulbs. I like as many as I can plant, although I have had mixed luck with them since moving to the country. (Deer, rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and you name it usually eat the bulbs, except for the daffodils.)

In my dreams -- and in past town gardens -- I have grown a huge assortment of bulbs, planting thousands at a time in small spaces. That is what you need to do to really see a whiz-bang display come spring. Planting scads of bulbs and enjoying the spring blooms is so rewarding, and all the neighbors will love you for it.

But there is a dirty little secret about the bulbs, and that is the foliage that follows the blooms. Bulbs renew themselves through their foliage, so the foliage must be allowed to grow fully. And when the bulbs go dormant for the summer, the foliage fades. This means it yellows and turns brown and dry and, unfortunately, that carpet of blooms is followed by a carpet of ugly, dying foliage. This is the price we pay if we want those bulbs to bloom again next year.

There are a few things you can do to try to hide this "ugly duckling" stage. Braiding/wrapping/tieing the foliage are not options, as these all inhibit the renewal process. If you stick to planting the so-called minor, or early little bulbs, such as crocus, scilla, and chionodoxa, the foliage is low-growing and disappears fairly quickly. Your usual plantings will do a decent job of hiding them.

You can layer your planting, putting daffodils in first down deep, then crocus or other small bulbs right above them. This allows for "double duty" where two sets of bulbs bloom in sequence in one spot, minimizing the area to be camouflaged later.

If you grow tulips and daffodils, the foliage is big and more noticeable and lasts into June. One approach is to plant these bulbs in drifts toward the rear of your planting area. Then arrange your annuals and perennials in front of them, diverting the eye from the bulb foliage. One of the best perennials for this is the daylily (hemerocallis). Other quick-growing perennial plants that make nice bulb hiders include baptisia and the cranesbills, and shrubs that leaf out late, such as weigela. In a garden shaded by deciduous trees, large hostas are absolutely perfect for hiding bulb foliage. You can experiment and see which of your favorites work the best for you.

Self-sowing annuals, such as nicotiana and cleome, make good bulb companions. They emerge after the bulbs have bloomed and quickly grow tall, spacing themselves randomly through the old foliage and soon concealing it from view. If your bulbs are widely spaced, you may be able to plant marigold or cosmos transplants between them with similar results.

Another option is to plant the bulbs in their own bulb garden area, accompanied by plants that are at their best much later in the season, meaning once the bulb foliage is no longer evident. This completely avoids drawing attention to the foliage problem, but requires you to have a separate early-summer garden area for those perennials that peak and bloom before midsummer, such as clematis, roses, iris, yarrow, columbine, dianthus and heuchera. If you don't have the luxury of a separate garden, at least try not to plant your bulbs right next to these.

Being a devoted gardener, you could, of course, lift your bulbs as soon as they stop blooming and transplant them to a hidden area of the garden, perhaps a few rows of the vegetable garden, to grow on. Daffodils in particular don't mind this, but it is a lot of work because you need to take a nice shovel full of soil with each bulb so as not to disturb the roots that grow from the base of the bulb. You'll need to refill the holes where they originally grew. Then you will have to replant your daffodils in the fall. Gardeners used to routinely lift, separate, and replant tulips to a "nursery bed" every year because tulips tend to bloom great the first year and less well after that. (Species and cottage tulips can stay in place and bloom for many years, however.) I tried that ... once.

Nowadays, many of us are more likely to yank out the tulips after flowering and replace them every year. That is actually the most expedient way to avoid the foliage issue altogether.

Yet another approach would be to plant your bulbs in containers, chill them in the garage or other protected area, and place them in the garden as temporary plants during the spring. As soon as the blooms fade, remove the container. Replace with seasonal bedding plants or summer bulbs. If you do this with some careful planning, you could have a succession of different bulbs in bloom for months on end, color coordinated with your perennials, and all in one spot! Wow!


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