With the shorter days of fall, when shrubs and trees are dropping their leaves, it is so refreshing to see bulbs blooming in the garden. When we think about bulbs, we usually think of spring tulips and daffodils. But there are many wonderful bulbs, tubers and corms that bloom in the summer and fall.
As I look over my garden beds at this time of the year, a number of fall blooming bulbs are just waking up: cyclamen hederifolium, crocus sativus (saffron crocus), crocus speciosum, nerines, colchicums, and a dainty little acis autumnalis.
And now, while we enjoy the fall-blooming bulbs, is a good time to buy and plant spring-blooming bulbs.
The key to success with these underground treasures is good drainage. They can be planted among the shrubs, trees, and perennials. Many bulbs will also grow well and naturalize in the lawn. If they are grown in the lawn, the first mowing should be delayed until the bulb leaves have turned brown.
Bulbs can be planted in layers with larger bulbs deeper in the ground and smaller bulbs above them for continuing succession of bloom. This method of planting bulbs was popular in 19th century and is known as the ‘Stinze-style.’ There are a number of stately 19th century homes in northern Netherlands that still have such flowering lawns with a stunning succession of blooms.
Some of the early bulbs suggested for such Stinze-style plantings are crocus species, galanthus (snow drops), eranthis hyemalis (winter aconite) and iris reticulata. (Note: y\galanthus and eranthis should be planted while still in leaf, as dry bulbs have a high chance of mortality). The early bulbs are a welcome food for the pollinators that are coming out of a long, cold winter.
For mid-season blooms try corydalis solida, chionodoxa, fritillaria meleagris, tulipa sylvestris, narcissus, ornithogalum umbellatum and scilla siberica. The last two can be very aggressive.
Finally, the late flowering spring bulbs suitable for Stinze-style plantings are leucojum aestivum, ornithogalum nutans, silver bells, hyacinthoides non-scripta (English bluebells), and hyacinthoides hispanica (Spanish bluebells).
To learn more about bulb planting in the Stinze-style, you can check out the website www.stinze-stiens.nl.
When planting your bulbs, the general rule is to plant them to a depth of two to three times the length of the bulb. Most prefer slightly alkaline to neutral soil with good drainage. Some bone meal added to the soil will give them a good start.
We know that squirrels love to eat our tulip and crocus bulbs. So, one of the methods I use I had learned from the Amish in Tennessee, which is to dip the bulbs in kerosene just prior to planting. It does not hurt the bulbs and will keep the rodents away. Also, a Dutch grower recommended blending a hyacinth bulb with water in a blender and watering the planted area with this cocktail. (Narcissus and hyacinths are poisonous to rodents so they will not eat them.) Whatever method you use, be aware the squirrels are watching you! By the way, it is recommended to use gloves when handling hyacinths.
There are a number of so-called tender bulbs that are perfectly hardy in sunny, sheltered locations that you may wish to try: nerine bowdenii, lycoris squamigera (naked ladies), sternbergia lutea, camassias and gladiolus. Our local nurseries are a good source, but for those rare collectibles, Telos Rare Bulbs is a good place to find them. They are in the U.S. but will supply necessary paperwork for import into Canada. The Pacific Bulb Society website has good information, and photos of hardy and tender bulbs.
One great idea for gardens, large and small, is to create a flowering meadow instead of grass lawn. The advantages are many: food for pollinators, blooms all season long and once established, minimal maintenance is required.
To create a flowering meadow, remove grass, incorporate organic material and sand, plant the bulbs in layers, and then seed with perennials and annuals of your choice for a succession of bloom. I would recommend buying specific plant seeds from a reputable source, rather than seed mixes. Inexpensive seed mixes may contain weeds that can be a problem for years.
Once a flowering meadow is established, the only maintenance required is a cut in early winter, after the birds have had their share of seeds.