Saturday, August 25, 2012

Are You Thinking About Next Spring's Bulbs?

Snowdrop - Galanthus ikariae
@ VanEngelen
Now is the time to start thinking about bulbs and getting your orders in for late fall planting.  It may already be too late for some real specialty bulbs, but ordering now ensures you won't have a problem getting most everything you need.

I have two favorite places to shop online:  Van Engelen and Brent and Becky's Bulbs.

Both have a broad selection of bulbs and their quality is consistently excellent.  This is important because sometimes you may get a bag of bulbs and find that half of them are moldy or have gone bad.  I find these suppliers take great care to ensure the bulbs arrive in good condition.  This means that they should be firm and appear as though they were freshly harvested, not overly wrinkled, dry or hollow feeling.  Bulbs are essentially living seeds that are not meant to dry out.

Crocus tommasinianus 'Barr's 
Purple'@ VanEngelen
My favorite time of year starts when the sun starts warming the ground in late February and early March.    The Witchhazel (Hammemelis) is flowering and the first snowdrops and crocus start to push through the soil and snow.  This year with no snow cover and early warmth, everything popped in March and made for an incredible display.  If the weather cooperates and you pick a wide range of bulbs, you can have color and flowers in your garden from late February well into the perennial season, and the great part of bulbs is that they can fill beds with color because no other vegetation is around to cover it up.  When they are finished, they quietly fade away as the other plantings fill in the garden beds.
Crocus tommasinianus 'Lilac
Beauty'@ VanEngelen

This added dimension in the garden bed takes away nothing as bulbs can be easily planted in between existing plants and in the Spring these bulbs add months of flowering.

When using bulbs, I prefer making a large impact with greater concentrations and groupings of similar bulbs.  I try to focus on making sure that the garden has consistent color from the beginning of the bulb season through to the perennial season.  I feel the best way to accomplish this is to limit myself from buying lots of different bulbs and to focus on maximizing the impact with a core selection bulbs.

Iris reticulata 'Gordon'

Smaller flowers like Snowdrops,  Crocus, Rock IrisScilla and Muscari are the backbone of my favorite bulbs and they need to be in large groups, 10-15+ bulbs, to have a real visual impact, and then they need to be repeated throughout the bed and other beds.  Small patches of these bulbs just seem to get lost.  All of them are great naturalizers, so after a number of years the patches will get bigger and more dense.  The Scilla will spread by seed and can be a little invasive, but for that beautiful blue color I don't care if it spreads around.

Iris reticulata 'Katherine
Hodgkin @ VanEngelen
These bulbs provide the background color starting with the Snowdrops(March), then the Crocus(late March/early April) and Rock Iris(early April) overlap and then continue until the blue Scilla(April) takes over and then itself is overtaken by the rich purple/blue of the Muscari(May). This year in Boston, we had some very early warming and many of these bulbs flowered at the same time, making for an amazing display that started in late February.  Next year could be cold with heavy snow cover and push everything back.  You just don't know, but the great attribute of bulbs is that they reliably come every year and perform.  They bloom based upon Growing Degree Days not time of year, so very warm early weather can wreck havoc on plant schedules.

Muscari armeniacum
@ VanEngelen
When buying, don't be afraid to order 100's of Crocus and Snowdrops.  Five groups of 20 Crocus is 100 bulbs and that might only be good enough for one bed.  They are inexpensive considering their impact and long life in your garden.  If I were going to add some Crocus and Snowdrops to an average suburban front yard(with some existing perennial beds), I would buy at least 250 of each bulb, and maybe split the crocus into two or three different colors or species.  This will give you a nice display in the first year but would not be overwhelming and 500 total bulbs would cost less than $100. 
Scilla @ VanEngelen

If you did the same again with Scilla and Muscari that would also cost less than $100 and you would have up to three months of beautiful flowers.

In the fall I will post on easy ways to plant bulbs for a natural look and how to protect them from squirrels.  Planting a 1,000 bulbs may seem daunting, but it can be done in a couple of hours and is well worth the effort.

Next week I will cover some of my favorite standout bulbs beyond these 'backbone' bulbs.  Selections will include Daffodils, Tulips, Fritillaria, Allium among others. The Van Engelen online catalog is very easy to navigate so you can see all the bulbs available in an easy format, and familiarize yourself with size and flower time.


  1. It's hard to believe it's already time to think about spring bulbs. Especially for those of us in climates with long winters, those early crocuses and irises provide such a treat in early spring. -Jean

  2. I agree with you about the value of small bulbs. I especially like crocus, and muscari. I would add to this category species tulips, which I think are my favorite bulbs. I like the way you think: make no little plans!

  3. I've given up on anything but daffodils. The squirrels and other critters eat everything else. :-/ Tried putting them in pots but the blooms are rather pathetic. Le sigh...I shall admire others' gardens from afar!