by Eric Stewart
The months of October and November in this region are the ideal time to plant flowering bulbs for the spring. I have even planted bulbs as late as early December—it all depends upon the weather and what it’s doing. Ideally, however, bulbs should have a month or so to acclimate themselves to their new homes in your garden prior to the ground freezing. As the proper planting depth varies from species to species (the larger the bulb, the deeper in the ground it goes), this allows some leeway. The deeper a bulb is planted, the later you can safely plant it and still get wonderful results with the coming of spring. In considering which bulbs are most suitable for your yard or garden, here are some quick pointers.
As a general rule, bulbs require well-drained soil in part to full sun to flourish. You want to avoid planting most bulbs in low, moist areas that tend to hold water. In regards to sunlight, most bulbs require full to part sun (after the trees leaf out) to flower properly and increase in number from year to year. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. One bulb that does very well in moist (even wet) conditions is Camassia (Camassia Leichtlinii), also known as Quamash—a tall stately flower that can reach a height of 24 to 30 inches. Camassia sports spikey clusters of star-shaped purple, blue or white flowers that are very showy and open on the stalk from the bottom up. It was once used by Native Americans as a source for both food and medicine. It is most effective planted in masses in a shrub border or at the edge of a lawn. It is also deer and rodent proof. Snowflake (Leucojum aestivem) is another wonderful and underused spring bulb that sends up dainty, white, bell-shaped flowers reaching 18-inches tall. It does well in moist conditions as well as in partial shade. As an added bonus, it too is deer and rodent proof.
While on the topic of light conditions in the garden, if you want to brighten up shaded areas with spring flowering bulbs, look for species that are suited for “woodland” conditions. Many bulb catalogues even offer “woodland collections” specifically for such areas. Among those bulbs that do well in the shade of deciduous trees are the aforementioned Snowflake as well as Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)—one of my favorite spring bulbs and one of the earliest to flower. These charming plants feature grass-like green foliage and drooping white flowers accented with green markings near the center. The Snowdrop’s flowers have three large petals and resemble downward facing pinwheels. The most common varieties are low growing, perhaps 5 to 6 inches tall, but larger varieties are also available. These delightful plants are deer and rodent proof, and grow to form large clumps. Winter Aconite (Eranthis), aka Winter Wolf’s Bane, is another great woodland bulb. These diminutive beauties (only 3-inches tall) are ideal for mass plantings under deciduous trees and shrubs. If happy, they naturalize readily to form large colonies over time. They are among the first flowers of spring and carpet areas in a low-growing blanket of bright yellow or yellow-chartreuse flowers. Winter Aconite is also deer and rodent proof. This is a near fool-proof bulb that I highly suggest you try growing. It should be planted en masse for best effect. Other small, early-flowering bulbs that do well under the shade of trees in both lawns and semi-wild woodland settings are Blue Squill (Scilla siberica) and the somewhat similar looking Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae). Both grow to 4 to 6 inches in height and, if left undisturbed, can spread over a few years to carpet entire areas in a sea of charming indigo, pale blue or white flowers. Both species are deer and rodent resistant. The native Trout Lily (Erythronium) is another lovely woodland bulb. They feature mottled bronze foliage and their yellow blooms resemble small, 10-inch tall Turk’s cap lilies or small yellow pagodas. They thrive in the dappled light of the forest floor.
Daffodils (Narcissi), aka Jonquils, are perhaps the showiest, easiest to grow, and most familiar of the spring bulbs. Given lots of sun and well-drained soil, these plants naturalize readily and return in greater number for a more spectacular display year after year. There are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from, ranging in size from miniature daffodils only 6 to 10 inches high, such as the charming “Tete-a-Tete,” to the large “King Alfred” type (the classic, large, golden yellow daffodil) that can reach 18 to 24 inches. Some varieties have a single flower per stem, while others carry multiple nodding blooms in clusters. There is also a great variety of colors to choose from—shades of white, orange, salmon and even pinkish tone. Adding yet more variety, daffodils can either be early, mid season or late bloomers—so when planning your display read the notes on the packaging and select several different varieties that bloom at different times to extend the season of bloom. Here is a brief sampling of the varieties of daffodils readily available at nurseries, garden centers, and through catalogues: “Ice Follies” is an early bloomer that grows to 18 inches and sports bright white petals with a pale lemon-yellow cup; “Chromacolor” is another early bloomer with pure white petals and a yellow cup that turns a deep salmon-orange with age. “Ceylon” is a 16-inch, early blooming variety with rich yellow petals and a striking orange cup that is very showy and naturalizes readily. “Poeticus” daffodils (large, fragrant, late-blooming varieties that feature white petals and small, dainty cups of orange and green) are among my favorites. Look for “Actea” or “Pheasant’s Eye”—both are lovely. All daffodils are deer and rodent proof and are a must for spring gardens. One word of warning: Do not cut back the foliage of spent blooms until the leaves have turned brown. As long as the leaves are still green, they are making food for the bulb. If you cut back the foliage, you are depriving the bulb of needed nutrients, and you will limit the health and number of flowers for next year’s display. If left unmolested, daffodils naturalize and spread readily.
Allium is Latin for garlic, a member of the large, useful and attractive onion family. Who knew that onions have such gorgeous flowers? I didn’t until I started planting these super easy to grow bulbs years ago. All allium are deer and rodent-resistant and are seldom bothered by disease. Most varieties of “flowering onions” have pom-pom-like clusters of flowers on tall stalks. The height and color varies depending upon the variety, but most bloom in shades of purple, lavender, white, burgundy or mauve-pink (though there are also one or two yellow varieties as well). “Gladiator” is a show-stopper featuring a great, round cluster of tiny purple flowers the size of a softball. These are carried high above the surrounding garden on stems 36 inches, or more, tall. “Globemaster” features even larger flower clusters though on shorter stems. One of my favorite flowering onions is Allium bulgaricum. This plant features interesting twisting gray-green foliage and unique clusters of small, bell-like flowers in shades of pink and white. All are very easy to grow in full sun and well-drained soil. As with daffodils, be sure to allow the foliage to brown before removing the leaves. The spent blooms remain interesting focal points in the garden or in dried arrangements even after the blooms have faded.
A word about tulips: Please don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against tulips. They are beautiful, showy spring flowers that come in a range of colors unmatched by any other bulb; however, they do have a few drawbacks. The main issue is one of critter-resistance—everything from deer to squirrels to groundhogs and chipmunks find them delicious. Also, they are bred for large colorful blooms, not as reliable perennials. In other words, if you plant a lot of tulips this fall, you will have a gorgeous presentation next spring, but the following year—not so much. So, if you want tulips, treat them as early season annuals and you won’t be disappointed.
Now the air is turning crisp and the leaves are starting to turn and fall; it’s not too soon to start planning for spring. Put on a pair of warm socks and a comfy sweater and go out and plant something!
Eric Stewart is a garden designer, writer and fine artist who gardens in Accord, NY.
He may be reached at Greenman Garden Design,
845-687-9166, at www.greenmangarden.com, or via email at elsgreenman.com.
He welcomes your comments and questions.