Spring bulbs in a formal garden setting
Yesterday I directed the planting of two thousand spring bulbs. We placed them individually in patterns and our team dug them one-by-one into the earth. When they were finished, we dressed the bulbs with a thick layer of mulch and all stepped back to admire our handiwork. The garden felt like it was bursting with energy with so much promise nestled snuggly underground.
In Maryland, it’s almost too late to plant bulbs. But according to local plant expert Patrick Gravel, as long as you can get a shovel in the ground, there’s still time. Of course, by now most of the on-line bulb suppliers are pretty much sold-out. But I’ve recently discovered that a quick run to the local nursery can still yield some interesting results.
Gravel came up from Richmond last week to speak to my garden club on how to garden with bulbs. Below is a detailed breakdown of the great bulb varieties he profiled. If you’re up for the task, many of them are still out there just waiting to be planted.
TOP VARIETIES OF SPRING BULBS
For me, the challenge of planting spring bulbs (like now) is the cold weather. Just when I’m turning my attention indoors, the bulbs need to go in the ground. This often requires an appetite for digging lots of holes outdoors when the temperature is hovering around 40°F (like yesterday.) Still, if you can visualize what the spring will look like, the reward is directly proportional to the amount of energy you’re willing to expend.
Carpet of blue muscari and other spring bulbs (Keukenhof, Holland)
Allium – Also known as ornamental onions, these drought-tolerant and easy-to-grow late spring/early summer bloomers come in a wide variety of colors, sizes, shapes and forms. Tall varieties include the giant purple-flowering Globemaster, Gladiator, and Purple Sensation, the reddish-flowered, oval-shaped Drumstick, the light purple, spidery-flowered Shubertii (Persian Onion), and the rosy purple-flowered Millenium, which is the 2018 Perennial of the Year.
Giant purple allium
Anemone – small in stature with good primary coloring, anemones are great naturalizers. They bloom early to mid April, topping out at 4” at most. The low-growing, daisy-like Anemone blanda, or Grecian Windflower, makes an ideal companion for tulips and daffodils. “A nice early groundcover if you’re waiting for something else to emerge,” said Gravel.
Crocus – Gravel thinks of crocuses as ‘little surprises’. You need to plant them early, though, since they’re among the earliest spring bloomers. (Plant most varieties in mid October-mid November.) Look for Giant Dutch crocus, and the even earlier-blooming Snow crocus. Autumn Crocus, which is not a true crocus, but a colchicum, bears purple-pink or white flowers in September or October and must be planted in August.
Fritillaria – A member of the lily family, these spring-blooming bulbs have unusual, bell-shaped flowers. Crown Imperial grows to 3′ tall and has lily-like foliage (with a grassy head tuft), Snake’s Head grow to around 1′ tall and have checkered petals and the purple to black-flowered Black Persian grows to around 3′ tall.
Snake’s Head fritillaria
Hyacinth – Gravel advises wearing gloves when handling hyacinths, because the oil from the bulb is an irritant. Highly fragrant, they naturalize quickly and are easy to force inside (more on that below.) Problems are they tend to be floppy. Gravel recommends planting them deeper to give them more structure or planting them with low caging to keep the blooms upright. Click here for Holland Bulb Farms’ selection.
Muscari – Commonly known as Grape Hyacinth, these high-fragrant, tiny spring bloomers form rivers of brilliant blue to purple color under taller spring flowers like daffodils and tulips.
Muscari, commonly known as Grape Hyacinth
Narcissus – Named for the Greek hunter who fell in love with his own beauty, narcissus come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes and forms. Some of the most common are: the traditional, single-flowered Trumpet, the slightly smaller Large Cup, the flat-flowered Small Cup with distinctly colorful edges, the clustered/layered cupped Double, the diminutive Jonquil, Tazetta (also known as Paperwhites), and Poeticus with its small cup edged with red.
Snowdrops – “A very simple bulb, you can’t go wrong with these February-March bloomers and they naturalize easily,” said Gravel. Choose from Galanthus elsewii, Galanthus nivalis, and the taller Giant snowdrops, Leucojum aestivum.
“There are many, many different varieties of snowdrops out there with tiny, tiny differences, said Gravel. “It’s a really nerdy plant.”
Tulips – According to Gardenia.net, there are over 3,000 registered varieties of this popular spring bloomer. Some of the most common are Darwin, Triumph, Double, Fringed, Parrot, Fosteriana and Greigii. The diminutive species tulips like Bakeri are long-lived and great for the front of the border. Gravel recommends using chicken wire to protect the bulbs from digging animals.
FORCING BULBS INDOORS
This is much easier than you think. Gravel says the easiest bulbs to force are amaryllis and paperwhites. ‘All they really need is water,” he said. The rest of the spring-blooming bulbs require a 6- to 8-week cooling period that mimics their outdoor period of dormancy.
Plant the bulbs in well drained potting soil and keep in your refrigerator at a temperature ranging around 45 degrees F for 6 to 8 weeks. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. After the cooling period, bring the bulbs out, place in a sunny location and enjoy.
Amaryllis bulb just beginning to sprout indoors
Patrick Gravel works at Sneed’s Nursery in Richmond, Virginia and lectures frequently on plants and plant life. He can be reached at email@example.com.