Spring bulbs in a formal garden setting
Yesterday I directed the planting of two thousand spring bulbs. We placed them individually in patterns and dug them one-by-one into the earth. When we were finished, we dressed the bulbs with a thick layer of mulch and stepped back to admire our handiwork. The garden felt like it was bursting with energy with so much promise nestled snuggly underground.
STILL TIME TO PLANT
In Maryland, it’s almost too late to be planting spring bulbs. But according to local plant expert Patrick Gravel, as long as you can get a shovel in the ground, there’s still time. And even if your favorite on-line bulb supplier has sold out, your local nursery may still yield some interesting results.
Last week,, Gravel came up from Richmond to speak to my garden club about gardening with bulbs. Below is a detailed breakdown of the great 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)
Also known as ornamental onions, alliums are drought tolerant and easy-to-grow. Moreover, they come in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes. If you’re looking for drama, choose tall varieties like the giant purple-flowering Globemaster, Gladiator, and Purple Sensation, Or go for interesting shapes like the reddish-flowered, oval-shaped Drumstick, or the light purple, spidery-flowered Shubertii (Persian Onion).
Giant purple allium
Small in stature with good primary coloring, anemones are the quintessential spring bulb. They bloom early to mid April and naturalize easily. The low-growing, daisy-like Anemone blanda, or Grecian Windflower, tops out at about 4″ and makes an ideal companion for tulips and daffodils. “A nice early groundcover if you’re waiting for something else to emerge,” said Gravel.
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.
A member of the lily family, these spring 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
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.) Unfortunately, these spring bulbs also tend to be floppy. Gravel recommends planting them deeper to give them more support or planting them with low caging to keep the blooms upright. Click here for Holland Bulb Farms’ selection.
Commonly known as Grape Hyacinth, these high-fragrant, tiny spring bulbs form rivers of brilliant blue to purple color under taller spring flowers like daffodils and tulips.
Muscari, commonly known as Grape Hyacinth
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 daffodils 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.
“A very simple spring 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.”
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 SPRING BULBS INDOORS
This is much easier than you think. Gravel says the easiest bulbs to force indoors 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 bulbs in well draining potting soil and keep them 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.