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Garden Design | Fall 2006 Out Here Magazine

Plan now for bursts of color next spring

By Pam Rye

Illustration by Pam Rye/Tom Milner

Flower bulbs are Mother Nature's way of shaking us from winter's cold grasp and colorfully showing us that spring, indeed, is on the way. Crocus, hyacinth, tulips, lilies, dahlias, and iris are a welcome sight after weeks of bare branches and cold winds.

For your own display of spring-blooming bursts of color, you'll need to start planning and planting this fall. Generally, late October to mid-November is the peak time to plant.

The sheer variety of bulbs available can make choosing difficult. Select the largest bulbs you can afford. The smaller the bulbs or size of a bloom, the more you will need to make an impact. In most cases the premium size is worth the extra money.

Write it Down

First things first: Put your ideas on paper. Think about how you want your spring flowers to look. Bulbs, with their vivid color and variety, provide hotspots of color or punctuation and in massive drifts. They blend well with other plants or can be the sole focal point in raised beds.

There is no single, right way to design a bulb display — design what you like — but the following suggestions may help you achieve pleasing results:

  • Overplant bulbs in thick clusters. You don't want them to be sparse or appear as if you could play connect the dots.
  • Interplant bulbs. Layer them to achieve more blooms in the same bed area.
  • Plant in groups or drifts. Bulbs look best when surrounded by other bulbs, but avoid lining them up like toy soldiers. They look more natural in clumps.
  • Extend your garden's blooming time. Choose multiple species or successive bloom times for a long display period.
  • Down in front. Place taller bulbs toward the back of the beds to avoid overshadowing shorter varieties.
  • Colors that work. Choose color schemes that appeal to you. Are you drawn to pastel or vibrant, warm or cool colors? Use a color wheel to help you decide. If you're still not sure, try going for contrast (yellow and purple, black and white) or go monochromatic (different shades of a single color: purple, violet, and lavender).
  • Use repetition but avoid monotony. Keep in mind that using too many colors or too many types of plants can look busy or messy, so keep it simple with just three or four colors. The size of the bed will determine how many types you can successfully blend.

Time to Plant

Once you complete your design and purchase your bulbs, it's time to plant. Place the bulb garden in a full-sun to part-sun location that has well-drained soil. You may need to amend the area with enough extra soil and organic matter to establish a 6-inch deep bed.

Creating a berm or a raised bed is an excellent idea for any landscape bed, but is especially worthwhile for bulbs. For drifts, or large groups of bulbs, use a shovel or spade to remove enough soil to place your bulbs at their proper depth; for individual bulbs, use a bulb planter.

A good rule of thumb for depth is to plant them two times deeper than the height of the bulb. For example, a 3-inch tall bulb should be planted 6 inches deep.

Plant the largest bulbs first and cover with half of the soil; then plant and cover smaller varieties. This technique will allow you to "layer" the blooms and result in a fuller floral display per square foot of bed area.

Plant "nose" or tip up and cover with enough soil that the bed is level or slightly higher than the surrounding soil. Finish your work by applying 2-3 inches of mulch and then water adequately to settle the soil.

Bulbs perform best with periodic feeding with an organic fertilizer that includes phosphorous. A few excellent choices include bone meal, blood meal, and cottonseed or alfalfa meal mixed with rock phosphate. Apply fertilizer at planting and again after blooming.

Container Planting

Bulbs can also be used in containers, which allow for convenience and mobility. This is good news if you were overly enthusiastic in your purchases and didn't get the beds ready for planting, or if you're a city dweller with only a balcony.

Choose a container with drainage holes. Place a half-inch of pebbles in the bottom, fill half full of quality potting soil, and mix in bulb food.

Next, place the bulbs as close as possible. I highly recommend using the layering technique in containers, covering each successive layer with soil, leaving a half-inch to 1-inch lip.

Keep outside and water occasionally to keep slightly moist. Once you see their noses pushing through, move the pot to the desired location and prepare for a dazzling display.

Bulb planting is unlike other types of gardening, because you don't see immediate results. While it may seem ungratifying in the fall, your hard work and patience will be greatly rewarded next spring when the treasures you buried reveal their glorious bounty.

Pam Rye is a garden designer and University of Tennessee extension agent in Clarksville, TN.

Bulb Design Key

Intended scale: 1" = Approx 5'
Click here for a PDF copy of the original
article to ensure correct scaling.

  1. Crepe Myrtle
  2. Asiatic Lilies
  3. Reblooming Iris
  4. Miscanthus or
    Little Princess Spirea
  5. Tulip & Pansy Mix
  6. Hosta (if in full afternoon sun,
    choose sun-tolerant hosta variety)
  7. Reblooming Daylily
    and Daffodil Mix
  8. Drumstick Alliums

Most of these plants can be grown throughout the U.S., but check your plant hardiness map, which outlines average annual minimum temperatures, to make sure a particular species will grow in your area.