Highly varied, low-maintenance bloomers you can plant in the fall and enjoy every spring
There would be no comely crocus, iris, or daffodil if not for the homely bulb. These swollen underground packages are young buds bundled with their own supply of nutrients. Just dig a hole and drop them in. Come spring you'll have a chorus of blooms — from the familiar turban of the tulip to the exotic 36-inch spire of the foxtail lily (Eremurus himalaicus) shown on this page. Most bulbs originated in mountainous regions, particularly of the Middle East and Mediterranean, and flower only after an extended stay in the cool earth. Planted in the coming fall weeks, these hardy parcels will patiently pass the winter until spring's warmth triggers their growth, some early in the season, some later. Chosen for their varied bloom times, a well-choreographed cast of bulbs will perform all season long.
Early Spring Bloomers (See image 1)
Each bulb is listed by name and planting depth:
Tulipa tarda 'Titty's Star'; 3/4 inches
Narcissus 'Intrigue'; 5/6 inches
Narcissus bulbocodium var. conspicuus; 3/4 inches
Chionodoxa forbesii (glory of the snow); 2/3 inches
Crocus vernus 'Flower Record' (Dutch crocus); 3/4 inches
Muscari botryoides 'Album' (white grape hyacinth); 3 inches
Tulipa greigii 'Toronto'; 8/10 inches
Late Spring Bloomers (See image 2)
Allium aflatunense 'Purple Sensation' (flowering onion); 4/6 inches
Camassia quamash 'Blue Melody' (blue camas); 4/6 inches
Iris x hollandica 'Casablanca' (Dutch iris); 5/6 inches
Triteleia ixioides 'Starlight'; 3/4 inches
Dichelostemma ida-maia (firecracker or lipstick flower); 3/4 inches
Anemone coronaria 'Mr. Fokker' (windflower or poppy anemone); 2/3 inches
Allium moly (golden garlic or lily leek); 2/3 inches
Oxalis regnellii var. triangularis (purple-leaf false shamrock); 2/3 inches
1. Tulipa tarda 'Titty's Star'; 2. Narcissus 'Intrigue'; 3. Narcissus bulbocodium var. conspicuus; 4. Chionodoxa forbesii (glory of the snow); 5. Crocus vernus 'Flower Record' (Dutch crocus); 6. Muscari botryoides 'Album' (white grape hyacinth); 7. Tulipa greigii 'Toronto'
DIGGING TOOLS (See image 3)
Truffle spade: Its sharp edge and point, as well as its two-handed grip, are well suited for planting bulbs between large tree roots, where it's necessary to make deep and precise cuts.
Tubular bulb planter: Works best in prepared (turned and loosened) soil. The cylindrical blade cuts out a plug of soil and brings it to the surface, creating a wide hole suitable for even the largest bulbs.
Ruler: Each type of bulb must be planted with the bottom at a specific depth; a ruler makes sure you've got it right.
Forked bulb planter: Allows planting in tough, unprepared soil. Step on the crossbar with one or both feet, then loosen the dirt with a rocking motion.
Long-handled trowel: This long scoop is perfect for digging a hole deep enough to stack several different types of bulbs (see "What's a 'Bulb Sandwich'?," next page). Most go in at a depth two and a half times their height.
Trowel: For the easiest bulb planting, choose a trowel closest in size to the bulb. The bigger the trowel, the more effort it takes to use it.
Spade trowel: Cuts and lifts turf for shallow-planted bulbs; also good for yanking up small weeds by dragging blade backward.
1. Allium aflatunense 'Purple Sensation' (flowering onion); 2. Camassia quamash 'Blue Melody' (blue camas); 3. Iris x hollandica 'Casablanca' (Dutch iris); 4. Triteleia ixioides 'Starlight'; 5. Dichelostemma ida-maia (firecracker or lipstick flower); 6. Anemone coronaria 'Mr. Fokker' (windflower or poppy anemone); 7. Allium moly (golden garlic or lily leek); 8. Oxalis regnellii var. triangularis (purple-leaf false shamrock)
Roger Cook's 'Bulb Sandwich'
To get the most out of a limited amount of planting space, This Old House landscaping contractor Roger Cook likes to make a thick "bulb sandwich." "All you need to do is dig one big hole, then layer in three bulb varieties according to their different bloom times," says Roger. "Crocuses, tulips, and daffodils are a good trio." Spring will bring sequential waves of flowers in the same spot. As the early-blooming crocuses fade, they will be followed a couple of weeks later by fresh-faced tulips, then, in another few weeks, a raft of daffodils. An added bonus: Each plant's new growth will help camouflage the wilting flowers and leaves of its predecessors.
The hole should be 10 inches deep, but can be any size or shape. A 12-inch-diameter planting area, for example, can accommodate 7 to 9 daffodil bulbs. Before putting them in, mix a tablespoon of an 8-8-8 fertilizer with the loose soil at the bottom, then gently twist the hairy, broader root end of each bulb into the dirt to establish good contact; the pointy end will be facing up. Be sure to space the bulbs so they don't touch one another, since overcrowding can stop them from blooming.
After covering those deep bulbs with four or five inches of soil, put in 9 to 12 tulips, which do best five or six inches below the surface. Add another two or three inches of soil, and the planting area is ready for 12 to 15 small crocus bulbs. Fill the hole to the top with more soil and soak the area with water. Keep it moist throughout the fall, then leave it dry until spring. The reward is a four- to six-week-long feast of flowers.
1. Truffle Spade; 2. Tubular Bulb Planter; 3. Ruler; 4. Forked Bulb Planter ; 5. Long-Handled Trowel; 6. Trowel; 7. Spade Trowel
WHERE TO FIND IT
Flowering bulbs and tools:
Brent and Becky's Bulbs
Additional information on flowering bulbs:
Our thanks to:
Becky Heath of Brent and Becky's Bulbs (for her unsurpassed bulb-wrangling skill).
Curator of the Fragrance, Shakespeare, and Hardy Fern Gardens, Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (for genially sharing her geophyte insights)