By Jim Dronenburg
Flowering bulbs are among the most reliable plants in the garden. Properly handled, they will reward the gardener with dazzling displays - often the first breath of spring.
But first, a map of your yard is a Good Thing. Almost nothing is so irritating as forgetting where they are and seeing half of a good, large bulb coming up with your shovelful of soil. Unless you are planting for a good show this spring, I'd advise you to plant the bulbs more sparsely than the planting directions tell you - treat them right and they will fill in. They don't ask much - any bulb or vegetable food (low nitrogen, high phosphorus/potash) will do. I generally dig it in when I'm planting. Bone meal is good, too (if you are not planting around things that need an acid soil), as it releases nutrients for years, and so slowly that it cannot burn the plants.
In the Shade
Gardens under deciduous trees may be shady in summer, but in spring, before the trees leaf out, many sun-loving bulbs will thrive. Consider snowdrops, eranthis, English or Spanish bluebells, early crocus, or starflower for these areas. For companions, use woodsy plants, such as hepaticas, Jack-in-the-pulpits, bloodroot, spring-beauty, false Solomon's seal, and Virginia bluebells. Or interplant with wild ginger, plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbagoides), tricyrtis, and epimediums, which will come up and fill in after the spring bulbs die down.
When planting bulbs in a typical garden border, the rule of thumb is "smallest in front, tallest in the back." Since size often equates to bloom time, this may be modified to "earliest toward the front, later toward the back." Generally, the smaller bulbs will be dying down as the later, larger ones bloom. The small ones need low-lying companions: thymes, low sedums, and the low chamomiles are about all they can rise above to bloom. Consider small clumps of early crocus or snowdrops around rocks or trees, or along walks. Later they can be over planted with annuals, or mowed with your grass. As the larger tulips and daffodils come in, you have more opportunities to work with combinations.
Some writers advocate over-planting bulbs in layers right over top each other. This only works if you are going to throw the bulbs away after they bloom, otherwise they will crowd each other out. Similarly, if you plant pansies, plant them near the clumps of bulbs, not over them, or you will have a real mess when everything is trying to grow at the same time. Try not to plant bulbs in rigid rows, but in clusters or drifts, except in the most formal of situations.
Tulips (shown above) are indispensable, even though they are short-lived, because they have such a wide range of colors, heights, and bloom times. The earliest large tulips are the Emperors and Greigiis - there are other colors, but I tend to think in terms of red with these. They are generally low and blocky in the bloom, and tend not to be harmed by frosts.
There are parrot tulips, with wildly striped and twisted petals; peony-flowered doubles (early and late flowering), lily-flowered, cottage types and Darwins (rounded petals, full color range, later flowering) - and, although the craze for them has died down, you can still get two or three kinds of the cluster-flowered tulips with as many as five blooms on the same stem. I have always liked these - can't beat them for cutting. They go well in formal or informal situations. All tulips are good with white- think alyssum, a low-growing annual, plant it as early as you can get it, or candytuft, which is an evergreen perennial and has a long blooming season. I especially recommend candytuft to edge the top of a wall or any kind of a raised bed; over time it will spill over the edges in a very picturesque manner.
Tulips do have problems - many fade away over the course of a few years. Deer, squirrels and voles love to eat them, and the ripening, post-bloom foliage is unsightly-but the rewards of a stand of brilliantly colored tulips on a sunny spring day are well worth the down side. Even better is a vase overflowing with cut tulips on a prominent table in the house. It does seem a shame to decimate your outdoor display, however, so buy extra bulbs to plant in an out-of-the-way spot just for cutting. Then you can have the best of both worlds! These bulbs will probably out-last those grown in a mixed border, by the way, if they are allowed to go unwatered in the summer, and undisturbed.
Daffodils and other narcissus lend themselves to more naturalized settings and will thrive and multiply for you. Deer and other varmints leave them strictly alone. I have yet to find fault with any combination of narcissus. Three exceptional plantings come to mind: One is at the LBJ Grove, of daffodils mixed with rudbeckia, cut to the ground in the dead of winter to let the daffodils sprout, and coming up between the daffodils as they go dormant. Another is at the NOAA building in Silver Spring. Pink tulip magnolias have been planted on a bank, with foliage trimmed off of the lower stems to let the bark show through silver-gray, and under them white daffodils (they look like "Thalia" - white, multiflowered, with reflexed petals, and a heavy, haunting fragrance - and totally indestructible) mixed with liriope. The liriope is weed-whacked to the ground in late winter to let the daffodils come through.
One of my great-aunts had large plantings of the old farmhouse daffodils - a mixture of single and double yellow, smaller in flower and leaf than the modern ones - which she had left monarda to ramble on through. Every five years or so she would dig and divide them in September. The monarda was whacked back and dug up with the bulbs (stuffed under moist burlap in the shade while she worked), and replanted in sod on top of the replanted bulbs. Worked like a charm. Narcissus are good for along rock walls, in open glades, and in clumps in your borders. Just remember to mark them.
Other Bulbs (For more, see Randy Best's article about the Other Spring-Blooming Bulbs)
Crocuses come in many colors and are superb, spring and fall. The ones generally referred to as "species" crocus are small but quick to multiply, and bloom in the very early spring. The larger-flowered Dutch hybrids bloom later in spring.
Hyacinths need no introduction. I plant these for cutting or fragrance; they are too stiff to "cooperate" in the informal garden the first year. In later years, en route to petering out, the bulbs go to clumps of bulblets and the blooms are smaller, and more graceful, and retain the wonderful fragrance. Similar in appearance to hyacinths are the scillas and bluebells, English and Spanish. They will, so the writers claim, multiply; I haven't grown them.
In a sunny spot, I have some of the Anemone blanda, tiny white "daisies" in early spring, maybe three inches high, and then just for jollies two years ago I got some St. Bridgid anemones on sale. I didn't think they would winter over near Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, but they have. The "returnees" have all come in blues and purples, with 3-inch flowers on stems up to a foot high. You notice nothing else when these are blooming.
For a quieter spot, plant some Guinea-hen-flower (Fritillaria meleagris). They bloom in lavender and white, 1-inch bells about 6 inches high on grassy foliage, and are "checkered" on the petals. You need to look closely, but once you see them you will want them desperately. They like moisture, and will multiply if they are content with their spot. Then you have the other extreme, the Fritillaria imperialis, or crown imperial. These plants get tall, and have clusters of yellow, orange or red bells under a green "topknot." These are the Ethel Mermans of fritillarias. For a subtler, but still knock-your-socks-off effect later in the year, try Fritillaria persica; these come up in June with two to three foot spikes of chocolate-purple flowers. Try to surround these with something that will hide the bottom of the stems. Literally dozens of other species are available; most are "quiet" beauties. Don't put anything large or flashy near them.
Alliums, or ornamental onions, vary from small to huge, bloom from April-May to Fall in shades of pink/purple, blue, yellow, pink and white. They all have globular clusters of small flowers, from six inches to four feet high. My favorites are A. caeruleum, true blue lollipops ten inches high, which flower in May, and Chinese garlic chives which produce white, foot-high globes in August.
If you suffer from cabin fever, try planting snowdrops (Galanthus), eranthis, and species crocus. Snowdrops are too small to make a bold statement, but are an effective "tiny treasure" to come upon while walking through the garden. The eranthis and species crocus, on the other hand, are brightly colored despite their size. My favorite place for the earliest small bulbs is right along walkways that you travel daily. I do not recommend companion plants while they are in bloom; instead, fill in afterwards with annuals, my preference being things like portulaca which do not have a big aggressive root system to interfere with the dormant bulbs.
How long do they last?
I should mention that some bulbs will peter out after a couple of years in a typical Washington area garden - the climate is too foreign for them to thrive for more than two or three years. Tulips, for example, will bloom fabulously for one or two years, as will giant alliums and the large-bloomed hyacinths. They still provide plenty of bloom for your buck, and should not be overlooked. Other bulbs can be a real investment, such as daffodils, bluebells, crocus, snowdrops, and some of the smaller species tulips. Fritillarias, muscari, and smaller alliums will "bloom and grow forever" as the song goes, and may spread throughout the garden.
If this article has gotten your interest, you really need to go out and buy/borrow a book. More and more unusual bulbs are coming to us, and the hybridizers keep churning out the new stuff. The standard warning applies - bulbs, like most other plants, are addictive!