Whether your garden is lush with too many plants or lacking the lovely look it deserves, there is a common cure: spring-flowering bulbs. "Bulbs are incredibly important in the landscape because they give an early seasonal pizzazz of color that would not normally be present without them," says Becky Heath of Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Va.
Autumn is when you plant early-season beauties like crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, scilla, snowdrops and tulips because they require a long period of cool temperatures to spark the biochemical process that causes them to flower in spring.
One afternoon planting bulbs this fall can yield weeks of color next spring, according to Sally Ferguson at the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. To accomplish that, select a palette of bulbs with different flowering times. Even daffodils come as early-, mid- and late-season bloomers.
When you shop garden centers or browse mail-order sources, look for bulbs that contrast and complement each other.
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"While a big splash of yellow daffodils is wonderful and beautiful in early spring, it makes a much more interesting statement if two different bulbs with either contrasting colors or forms are combined," says Heath.
She likes combinations such as Golden Eco daffodil with Red Impression tulip or Prinses Irene tulip with Blue Shades anemone.
"It's even better and looks like a more complete garden if shrubs, perennials and bulbs are planted together," she says.
Bulbs are perfect for all garden styles and levels of gardening experience because they are easy, versatile and tolerant. All the planting information you need comes right on the packaging. They also give you a good investment on your gardening dollars because they return year after year, often spreading in greater numbers.
"My first autumn here at BelleWood Gardens, I planted 8,000 bulbs — lots of daffodils, snowdrops, grape hyacinths, little Guinea hen flower and more — to welcome my first spring," says Judy Glattstein. She's the author of "Flowering Bulbs for Dummies" and "Bulbs for Garden Habitat" and a gardener on 9 acres in western New Jersey.
"Fifteen years later, they're multiplying by offsets, some are seeding about. Now, when winter comes, I look forward, eagerly, to spring."
When Glattstein lectures students and clients, she suggests allocating at least 10 to 15 percent of space in a perennial border to bulbs.
"That way when the bulbs are dormant in summer, there are no huge bare areas but rather nice places for tucking annuals in for summer interest," she says.
Heath, too, recommends the combo garden idea because spring-flowering bulbs are planted deeper than perennials, biennials and summer bulbs that can follow, providing you with sequential color in a manageable space.
When it comes to architecture and garden design, bulbs work with anything and everything: among boxwoods at a formal home, in a woodland setting around a cottage, as a flower border in front of a townhome or within an edible garden at a rural retreat.
"They are the material, and do not, in most cases, dictate the design," says Glattstein.
Bulbs also work in various light conditions. Some, such as tulips, need full sun, while others such as daffodils thrive under deciduous trees where sun filters through before the leaves leaf out.
Gardeners who battle deer damage will like the fact that daffodils and alliums are not popular on Bambi's salad bar.
And, the gardeners who love to bring their garden indoors will be happy to know many bulbs — tulips, daffodils, lilies, snowdrops and hyacinths — make wonderful cut flowers.
"You cannot get fresher than home grown," Glattstein says.
If you have no actual garden space or want your bulb garden to be mobile, you can plant bulbs in small or large containers.
"It's a wonderful way to change the decor of a porch, deck or patio," says Heath.
To do this, pot up your chosen bulbs, water them well and then bury the pots under a pile of leaves or mulch, about 6 to 12 inches deep. This allows the bulbs to experience winter just as if they were planted in the ground, able to utilize rain or snow.
Hint: If you have those underground bulb monsters called voles, you may want to put small-mesh rat wire over the top of the buried pots of tulips to keep the bulbs from becoming a winter feast. The wire could keep squirrels from digging them up, too.
When spring gets closer, begin pulling off some of the mulch or leaves, exposing emerging bulb sprouts to sunlight; otherwise, the leaves yellow. Every week, pull back a bit more; once they are up and budding, place the pots where you want them or insert them into prettier containers.
"You'll have lots of color that can be moved from place to place," says Heath.