Now is the time to order your spring-flowering bulbs for best selection
The first flowers to make their appearance in my garden often arrive as early as late February or early March—depending, of course, if there is snow on the ground. The aptly named snowdrops start emerging when it’s still winter, pushing their delicate but tough heads through the ground and popping into bloom. They last for many weeks, and each year there are a few more in each spot, as their little bulbs multiply and make more blooms the following year.
While the snowdrops are still doing their thing, other petite bulbs begin to push their flowers—dwarf irises, glories-of-the-snow, scilla, puschkinia, the ever-welcome crocus—which are then followed by daffodils, hyacinths, and a number of tough and reliable tulips. These make a welcome petit-point of colour throughout the spring as perennials begin to also stir and emerge from hiding.
To get the best bang for your bulb buck, you need to shop early for bulbs, whether at local nurseries or from mail-order companies. The spring flowering bulbs tend to go on sale in August, although websites will have their catalogues up earlier—and ship to you at the appropriate time for planting. If it’s not time to plant, keep your bulbs in a cool, dark and dry place until you’re ready to have a planting day (usually after the first frost).
Little, early charmers
As noted above, I love the small wonders—the dwarf irises, scillas, snowdrops, grape hyacinths and others that are reliably perennial and multiple to make bigger clumps each year. Of these, the most charming in my book are the snowdrops, (Galanthus) which this winter began pushing through the ground in late February. These green and white beauties are often hard to find and can be expensive (for the size of the bulbs) but they do multiply.
Less pricy options are the glories of the snow (Chionodoxa), beloved by bees and available in blue, white, and soft pink forms; Scilla, or squill, usually found in rich blue but also available in white; striped squill (Puschkinia), known for its blue-and-white striped flowers; and grape hyacinths (Muscari), which are highly fragrant and last for weeks. These blue, purple, or white latter look especially striking when planted with small species tulips or daffodils in a contrasting colour such as yellow.
Grape hyacinths and dwarf species tulips make a colourful scene.
The allium or onion family offers us an excellent selection of bulbs, in a range of colours and plant/flower sizes. For those plagued by deer, they turn up their noses at alliums, due to the pungent scent and taste of the plants. While there are a few compact varieties, the most impressive types are quite tall and look great in the middle of a perennial border. They tend to come on later than many types of bulbs, which makes for an extended colour season—some of the larger alliums don’t begin to flower until June, and look fabulous alongside the awakening perennials and shrub of your garden.
Consider Allium caeruleum, the truly blue variety; the two-toned drumstick allium (A. sphaerocephalon) with its deep burgundy flowers tinted green at their base; massive ‘Globemaster’ and ‘Purple Sensation’ varieties; ‘Mount Everest’, which is snowy white; and the eccentric ‘Hair’ variety that looks like fireworks going off. My personal favourite is Sicilian honey garlic, A. siculum, which doesn’t look like an allium at all, featuring bell-shaped flowers that are maroon and white with green accents.
One hint with alliums—make sure you know where you have them planted so you don’t inadvertently pull some of the varieties with finer foliage, thinking they are weeds.
Why, yes, that could be the voice of experience speaking here.
Tiptoeing through tulips
For those who are plagued by deer rampaging through your tulips, you have my sympathies. Those pesky creatures consider tulips to be part of their spring buffets and are cussed by many gardeners. However, you do have a few options. Consider growing them in large pots on your deck; plant them behind things they don’t like, such as daffodils and alliums; spray your tulip plants with one of the various deer repellents out there (bearing in mind those repellents need to be reapplied after each rainfall).
With that caveat out of the way, tulips are fabulous and if you can grow some, your garden and your spirit will be glad for it. There are thousands of varieties of tulips out there, although most places only offer a few dozen types, in part because of the deer problem making tulips less popular than they once were. There are 14 categories of tulips, including viridifloras, which have green in their petals along with other colours, and parrot tulips, which are wildly coloured and frilled beauties, and the strikingly-different fringed tulips. Plant tulips at least six inches deep in the fall, and cut the flower stems off when they finish blooming, but leave the foliage so they can hopefully multiply and return next year.
If you’re getting only leaves and no (or very few) flowers, dig those up and plant new bulbs. The most reliably perennial varieties in our climate include the Darwin and Triumph types, but I have some five-year-old fringed ‘Lambada’ tulips that delight me every spring, too. You can also just plant new ones each year and not worry about whether they’ll return or not. Varieties to look for include ‘Queen of Night’ (deep purple); ‘Slawa’ (deep purple with orange edging); ‘Caribbean Parrot’ (glorious tropical shades of orange and coral); and ‘Secret Perfume’, which are early double yellow tulips.
Looking for an easy bulb choice that will return faithfully year after year and won’t be plundered by Bambi? Look no further than daffodils, those bright and cheerful harbingers of spring. They aren’t all yellow, either.Some are white or a combination of white and coral/pink, and they come in a huge variety of sizes and bloom periods. Depending on the spring, I have early daffodils appearing by mid-April, and then a flotilla of them through May along with the tulips, hyacinths and other later-bloomers.
You might think with a limited colour range there wouldn’t be that many daffodil varieties out there. You’d be wrong. There are between 13 and 15 classification categories of daffodils according to the UK and American daffodil and narcissus societies, and each of those contains hundreds of varieties. We don’t need to go into all that, however—for our purposes, the most common are the trumpet, large and small cupped, double, papillon, species and miniature varieties. Popular types include ‘Ice Follies’, ‘Thalia’, ‘Minnow’, ‘Barrett Browning’, ‘Tahiti’ and ‘Cheerfulness.’
A few other curiosities
Some bulbs don’t bloom until mid to late spring, after the main flush of tulips and daffs are past; these including Spanish and English bluebells (Hyacinthoides), Star of Bethlehem (Ornithogallum), quamash or wild hyacinth (Camassia) and summer snowflake (Leucojum). As with some of the allium species, if you plant these be sure to mark where you planted them in the autumn, lest you inadvertently dig them up thinking their fine grass-like foliage is something weedy.
There you have it—a bevvy of bulbous beauties to look for this fall and to add to your garden palette. Come next spring, you’ll be so glad you did.
Oh, and don’t worry about planting them pointy side up. The bulbs will figure it out and come up even if you put them in upside down.