By: Russell Stafford
Spring-blooming bulbs are one of gardening’s cheapest and easiest thrills. Not only do they provide loads of flowers at a minimum of cost, they also make splendid partners for other spring-blooming perennials and bulbs. Here are some beautiful partnerships to consider as you plan (and plant) for spring.
The Earliest Spring Bulbs
Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) are clump-forming woodlanders that burst into bloom during the first mild days of the year, often before the last patches of snow have melted. The strappy leaves and white, green-blotched flowers of snowdrops grow from small, daffodil-like bulbs that repel rodents. The nobbly underground tubers of winter aconites are also pest-resistant, while their sunny-yellow buttercup blooms attract bees. Purchased Eranthis tubers are often hopelessly desiccated, so it pays to shop around for a reliable source. A more sure-fire way of establishing winter aconites is to scatter freshly collected seed in early summer.
Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa spp.), and early daffodils (Narcissus spp.). Lavish drifts of small blue flowers carpet the ground under spreading branches laden with purple-pink, waterlily blooms. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Although individually small, Siberian squill and glory of the snow self-sow into large, carefree colonies that flower in tandem with Magnolia × soulangiana and early daffodils such as ‘February Gold’, forming a classic early-spring garden scene. These little bulbs also partner splendidly with the white flowers of star magnolia (Magnolia kobus var. stellata) and the yellow blooms of early daffodils (including ‘Little Gem’). They’re at their best in full to partial sun and humus-rich soil.
Tommy crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus), Arnold Promise witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’), and hellebores (Helleborus spp.). Most crocuses are squirrel fodder. One notable exception is the Tommy crocus, which not only persists in the garden, but naturally spreads via self-sowing. It’s also one of the earliest crocuses, opening its silver-blue flowers in late winter, at the same time that the spidery yellow petals of Hamamelis × intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’ unfurl. These early-blooming crocus flourish in light shade and humus-rich soil, and glow most brightly when backlit by sun. ‘Arnold’ grows to 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, so give it room!
Early to Late Spring Bulbs
Grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.), daffodils (Narcissus spp.), and camass (Camassia spp.). The chubby, sky-blue, steepled flowers of grape hyacinths are the perfect foil for the cheerful, dancing blooms of daffodils. This pest-free, sun-loving combo hits its stride in April with the midseason daffodils (such as ‘Minnow’ and ‘Fortissimo’), and continues into May as the Jonquilla hybrids and other late daffs make their entrance. To keep the blue-and-yellow theme going through mid-May, add some camassias (such as Camassia cusickii or Camassia leichtlinii).
Tulips (Tulipa spp.) and daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are perfect for pairing, as long as the cultivars chosen bloom at the same time (good bulb catalogs will indicate bloom times). Tulips are anything but pest-free, attracting bulb-eating rodents and bud-munching deer. One of the best ways of limiting the carnage is to densely interplant them with daffodils, which most pests actively dislike. Of course, the primary reason for combining the two is that they make such beautiful music together. Starting in very early spring with the early daffodils and “species tulips”, and continuing until the late double-flowered tulips and Jonquilla hybrids bow out in May, they offer any number of enchanting combinations for sunny sites.
Spring Bulb Containers
Another way to protect and combine tulips is to grow them in pots, which can be mixed and matched with containers of other spring-bloomers, such as pansies and small daffodils. Plant the bulbs an inch or two below the surface in Fafard Ultra Outdoor Potting Mix in late fall or early winter. When sub-30 temperatures arrive, move the pots to a protected location (such as an attached garage) where temperatures stay mostly between 30 and 50 degrees. Water lightly whenever the soil appears dry. For added protection from rodents, place the pots in a critter-proof crate or cover them with hardware cloth (or something equally chew-proof). Move them to an unprotected location in late winter when low temperatures are no longer dipping into the low 20s. Once they’ve re-adapted to the outdoors, combine them with other spring-bloomers in a larger container for a custom-designed display.
Bulb Care and Planting
Extra-deep planting sometimes works as a tulip-protection strategy. Rather than the usual 4- or 5-inches deep, plant the bulbs with their tops 8 or more inches below the surface. Better yet, dig a 10-inch-deep trench, place the bulbs, bury them under a couple inches of soil, and install a barrier of hardware cloth before backfilling. Mulch the area with leaves or pine needles to mask the freshly disturbed soil from inquisitive squirrels. It’s a lot of work, but if it allows you to grow and combine tulips such as ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Blue Heron’ with impunity, it may be worth it.
A bit of dreaming and bulb-planting in fall can result in glorious garden displays for many springs to come!
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