It’s easy to dream of spring bulbs amid the drudgery of fall leaf raking and garden cleanup. Luckily, now is the time to purchase and plant spring-flowering bulbs for a colorful show.
With thousands of varieties available, the choices seem endless. Whether you buy bulbs at garden centers or through catalogue and online sources, remember to plant them before the ground freezes. They need time to develop roots and be prepared for the required chilling period. Most bulbs need to be planted in holes two to three times their height in sunny, well-drained locations. Plant them generously for the biggest show.
We talked to two pros -- Brent Heath, co-owner of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Virginia, and Christian Curless, horticulturist at Colorblends of Bridgeport, Connecticut -- who offered these suggestions for new and underused bulbs to try.
Beyond yellow daffodils: Consider unconventional colors like green and pink. “While there’s nothing wrong with yellow or white daffodils, the daffodil world is deep and wide in colors,” says Curless, pointing to the green-tinted daffodil Pistachio. Heath also suggests the coral-pink-and-white Chromacolor, as well as Dallas and Green-Eyed Lady, two varieties that are white with green centers.
Technicolor tulips: In the colorful tulip world, Curless gushes over the multicolored Beauty of Apeldoorn, a yellow tulip with surprising streaks of red, and Moris Gudanov, a double version with similar color markings. “At Colorblends, blending different tulip combinations is our thing, so we’re always looking for varieties that are multicolored,” he says. Green hybrids (Madonna and Spring Green) are relative newcomers.
Critter-resistant bulbs: Critters can quickly devour tulip and crocus plantings, but Curless says there are several deer- and rodent-proof bulb options in the amaryllis family, including daffodils and alliums; these bulbs contain a bitter, poisonous substance called lycorine that mammals won’t eat. Other bulbs such as alliums, grape hyacinths and squill have a smell or flavor that’s undesirable to deer and rodents.
Returning Darwin Hybrid tulips: Although, Curless says, “Tulips aren’t very good perennials,” he suggests the Darwin Hybrids as offering the most promise for a repeat season of spring blooms. For best results, Heath recommends planting these Darwins deep (8 to 10 inches), then later breaking off the blooms’ old seed heads to help plants conserve energy and prevent disease for the following season.
After-April alliums: Extend the spring bulb show with bulbs that will bloom from May to early June. Alliums, ornamental onion bulbs, are hardy, long lasting and lovely. Heath recommends Gladiator for its softball-size blooms and strong stems; it’s 3 to 4 feet tall. He cautions gardeners not to overwater these and other alliums. “After blooming, they like to sleep in a dry bed during their summer dormant period,” he says. For a smaller, more affordable option, Curless suggests Moly alliums.
Container minis: Pot up some miniature bulbs for spring containers. Heath’s newest daffodils -- the award-winning Golden Echo, Beautiful Eyes and Bahama Beach -- offer multiple fragrant blooms and are ideally suited for container displays. He suggests potting a mix of daffodils, tulips and hyacinth for a “living floral arrangement.” Once potted, overwinter the container in a garage or protected porch until spring temperatures rise above the teens. Move the pot outdoors and await the spring blooms.
Unsung snowflakes and bluebells: Discover Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) and summer snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum), two underused, deer-resistant treasures. For Spanish bluebells, Heath prefers Excelsior, which is considered the king of Spanish bluebells, with its supersized blossoms. He suggests planting these bulbs in river-like swaths in either shade or sun if you have the room. Curless says snowflakes are great performers throughout the country. “They tolerate most conditions, even damp areas and some shade,” he says. “Plus, they are showier and less invasive than lily of the valley.”
Wild tulips: Plant ancient tulip varieties discovered in far-off places such as Turkish alpine meadows or Asian mountainsides. “In spring, many people want brash color, but several species tulips like Tinka are charming and delightful,” Curless says. As predecessors to today’s bold hybrids, these dainty varieties are being grown and sold for their nostalgia and adaptability. Try them in a rock garden or along a border.