How To Plant Spring Flowering Bulbs
As nature intended...
To most gardeners, "naturalising" means growing bulbs in grass, rather than in borders, but in its broadest sense, it implies "as nature intended".
Planting bulbs as they would appear in the wild; in broad swaths, scattered amongst other flowers - is instantly appealing. Relaxed, carefree and low on maintenance, there are just as many varieties suitable for naturalising as regular planting, with the reassurance of easily achieved, spectacular results every time.
The sight in spring of a water meadow filled with fritillaries, a bluebell wood or alliums drifting through a Chelsea show garden, is undoubtedly breath-taking. But the quality of next year's display depends on the freshness of this year's bulbs; so choose only the best, as soon as they arrive in store, for blooms that won't fail to impress.
Follow Mother Nature's example and plant in large numbers - threading ribbons of colour through existing beds and borders, or ‘layering' bulbs, corms and tubers more formally, between spring bedding and early-flowering perennials, in a subtly choreographed, but naturalistic way.
Bulb planters, both long-handled and short, are ideal for planting a large quantity of bulbs, in a fraction of the time. Remember the intention is to leave them undisturbed for many years, so space well and plant deeply - adding greater numbers towards the centre of the display and tailing-off towards the edges, as if they had naturally self-seeded.
Smaller bulbs, such as Crocus, Muscari, snowdrops and wood anemones are easier to plant by the handful, lifting a square of turf or soil and scattering them beneath. Replace and press down firmly, dotting a few extras between the "squares", for a softer appearance.
Bulbs can transform grass, whether just a small section of lawn is carpeted, or an entire meadow. Both cultivated hybrids and "wild" species are suitable, but varieties must be robust enough to compete with grass roots and growing foliage. Think outside the "norm", beyond classic golden daffodils, to the remarkable range suitable for grass. Round-headed alliums, elegant tulips, iris and the Summer Snowflake, Leucojum aestivum may all be grown in this way.
Simply giving the illusion of nature gives the greatest scope, with unlimited variety and sequential flowering. Overlap displays with distinct times of blooming - such as three varieties of Narcissus or Tulipa; beginning with massed small "wild" or dwarf hybrids, leading in to dependable mid-season cultivars, followed by tall-growing, fragile or dramatic double hybrids that make the most of milder spring weather.
In the lawn, perhaps define an area by mowing a neat border around it - and if large, also a path through it. A random scattering of bulbs gives the illusion of natural self-seeding; which is especially true of species Crocus or Narcissi, snakes-head fritillaries and snowdrops.
Bulb foliage must be allowed to die back naturally, for at least 6-weeks after flowering (regardless of how untidy they become). Careful choice of varieties can limit this, by selecting those with neater, shorter leaves that helpfully quickly fade. In fact, many larger bulbs actually look less obtrusive as their foliage withers, when surrounded by grass, rather than isolated in a manicured flower bed.
Plant earlier-flowering varieties in lawns that have to be mown in spring, giving plenty of time for their leaves to return nutrients to the tuberous roots; snowdrops, winter aconites, wood anemones, Chionodoxa, Crocus and Scilla - the Siberian Squill, will happily colonise considerable areas once established.
To enhance the natural beauty of woodland, or create pools of colour through subtle summer planting, choose bulbs for succession of flower, height, contrast and form. Once again, alliums come to the fore, seeding freely amongst roses, lavender, perennials and ornamental grasses; along with vivid pink Gladiolus byzantina and cool ice-blue Camassia.
So why not take a leaf out of Mother Nature's book and become a "natural gardener" - adopting a relaxed approach and making the most of each season's finest flower.
The delights of bulbs are not limited only to spring. As garden greenery takes on autumnal tints, late-flowering bulbs provide all the freshness and glamour one could wish for - with many varieties available pot-grown and already in flower.
- Amaryllis belladonna - not to be confused with the tender indoor Hippeastrum, hardy Amaryllis are the majesties of the bulb world. Benefitting from the backing of a warm wall and South-facing sun, their large fragrant trumpet-flowers come in shades of candy pink to pure white.
- Colchicum - commonly called ‘naked ladies' for their slender stemmed "water lily" flowers, opening months ahead of their broad spring leaves; robust Colchicum naturalise well in grass or beneath shrubs and trees, where their fresh goblet-shaped blooms stand proud of groundcover perennials and fallen leaves.
- Cyclamen hederifolium - (also known as C. neapolitanum) flourishes in dry shade, with reflexed sugary pink, mauve or white flowers opening just ahead of attractively silvery-marbled leaves. Plant pot-grown corms for carpets of colour beneath specimen trees and conifers.
- Nerine bowdenii - from South Africa's Drakensberg Mountains, thrives in dry, sun-baked places; against a sunny wall or in a free-draining gravel garden. Flowering well once settled and mature - intersperse with tender salvias or aromatic Perovskia for ‘Cottage Gardening' with an exotic twist.
- Schizostylis coccinea - a moisture loving native of South African stream banks; spikes of red, pink or white flowers open above "grassy" foliage, alluding to its lily family relations. Looking fresh as other plants fade, partner Schizostylis with ornamental grasses and other front-of-the-border perennials for a sensational late-summer show.