Spring Bloomers

A Landscape of Bulbs
by Heide Kim, Burnaby GARDENWORKS
October 1, 1996

As we are about to resign ourselves to yet another wet and dull coastal winter, let’s focus on the advantages and opportunities our mild, moist climate creates. Where else in Canada can we enjoy snowdrops, glory-of-the-snow and crocuses in January? While Calgary is battling minus 50-degree wind-chill factors, our daffodils are waving in the spring breeze. By the time the snow finally clears in Toronto, Vancouver is engulfed by a burst of colour from millions of spring bulbs seemingly erupting all at once, regardless of rain or temperature. This sounds great, but it gets even better -- there is nothing easier to grow than a bulb. They are the lazy gardener’s dream.

If bulbs have any disadvantage at all, it is that their foliage must be allowed to dry out by itself before being removed. After using up all of it’s reserved energy to produce a flower, the bulb relies on these leaves to regenerate itself, using energy from the sun. This leafiness is something we have to live with when planting bulbs, but there are ways around this. Luckily there are many bulb and perennial combinations that will hide the withering leaves successfully, and look stunning at the same time.

Imagine deep pink anemones peeking out of a groundcover of Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis). Deciduous groundcovers such as sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) are beautiful successors to spring bulbs. Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) looks great interplanted with plantain lilies (Hosta spp.). The linear iris foliage provides a sharp contrast to the large layered leaves of the Hostas, and by late spring it will be completely hidden by them.

Tall-growing bulbs, such as the early-blooming camas lily (Camassia quamash) and the summer-blooming foxtail lily (Eremurus spp.), can be strategically planted behind tall-growing grasses, such as the purple flame grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Purpurascens’).

Big bulky tulip leaves will hardly be noticed under the foliage of deciduous ferns, lupins (Lupinus spp.) coral bells (Heuchera spp.) or ladies mantle (Alchemilla mollis). Any kind of tulip will do, but the species tulips are really wonderful. The waterlily tulip (Tulipa kaufmanniana) and the Greigii (Tulipa greigii), with its maroon striped foliage, looks great popping out from a groundcover of lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina). Plant these special tulip species deep so they will not need to be lifted.

At home in Germany we always had crocuses in our lawn. Hundreds of them grew in random clumps and drifts of blues, yellows and whites. So often flower beds are located next to the house and are hidden from view from inside, where we spend most of our time in February and March. As a small trade-off for this colourful lawn, we delayed our first mowing by a couple of weeks to give the crocus leaves a chance to finish their duties and dry up by themselves. When growing any kinds of bulbs in the lawn, it is important to ensure that the leaves of the bulbs have completely died down before applying any weed killers.

Another early messenger is glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae), which can spread to literally blanket a semishaded garden area with its intense blue flowers. What a contrast against a dusting of late snow! Iris reticulata, available in shades of blue and purple, will also tolerate part to heavy shade. Plant the white variety of crested iris (Iris cristata) where it will brighten up a dark corner, and combine with purple iris and little yellow daffodils. When the flowers have faded, early-blooming annuals, such as pansies, can be planted to fill in the gaps, or substitute with shade-loving primulas for spring and summer colour.

Contrary to what many of us have been led to believe, daffodils (Narcissus spp.) don’t like to be dug up and stored. After a very short period of dormancy in the summer, they already start sending out roots again in August, so if you are planting some for the first time, buy early and plant out as soon as possible for the best results. Be sure to plant them nice and deep as well, just as the directions specify. The bulbs best planted so deep that annuals and perennials can be planted afterwards, hiding the fading foliage in the spring. Some daffodils are fragrant, and all make excellent cut flowers, so always plant a few extra so you can enjoy spring indoors.

When choosing bulbs to naturalize, small-flowered varieties are preferred over spectacular, cultivated hybrids, which are more at home in a formal planting. Always remember that planting cool colours, such as blue and purple, in the distance will draw it closer. Also, light colours will look best against the dark background of a cedar fence or evergreen hedge, while deep purples and dark tones are better against a light background.

With a little imagination and planning, a garden does not need to be a chore. If you would like year-round colour in a garden that is easy to look after, bulbs and other easy-care plants that don’t need a lot of fuss are a really good start. Consider bulbs this fall, and remember, once planted, they’re the easiest plant in the garden!

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