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Sensational Bulbs for Spring
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

September 17, 2006

Allium aflatunense 'Purple Sensation'
Photo courtesy Netherlands Flowerbulb Information Centre

Put any of these nine sleeping beauties to bed now and you’ll wake up to a burst of colour next spring. Most of the following bulbs are not as well known as they should be. Some are small and delicate, others tall and exotic looking, but all are worth a spot in your garden. Many naturalize to come back year after year, spreading if they’re happy, and most are unappealing to spring garden menaces such as deer and squirrels.



The look

Growing partners
Blue star windflower (Anemone blanda ‘Blue Star’) Zone 4 Low-growing daisy-like blue flowers 4-5 cm wide with yellow centres. Early spring, 15 cm tall Plant 5 cm deep and apart. Soak tubers in water overnight. If you can’t tell which side is up, plant sideways. Full sun/ partial shade
Spring flowering shrubs, perennials (place at front edge of bed)
Bulgarian ornamental onion (Nectaroscordum siculum) Zone 4
palescent bell-shaped hanging flowers. Early summer, 90 cm tall 10 cm deep, 20 cm apart, full sun/partial shade Hosta, tulip ‘Queen of Night’, spring flowering shrubs
Persian fritillaria (Fritillaria Persica) Zone 5
Deep purple nodding flowers, attractive blue green leaves. Early spring; 75 cm tall
20 cm deep and 25 cm apart. Full sun, well drained soil
White daffodils or pink tulips; peonies, irises
Purple sensation ornamental onion(Allium aflatunense 'Purple Sensation’) Zone 4 Attractive lollipop-shaped lilac-purple flowers 10 wide. Mid to late spring, 90 cm tall
20 cm and 25 cm apart. Full sun/partial shade. Tuck around perennials to camouflage leaves
Peonies, irises, perennial geraniums, ornamental grasses
Rip Van Winkle daffodil (Narcissus ‘Rip Van Winkle’) Zone 3 Golden star-like flowers 5 cm wide on small plants. Mid to late spring. 10-15 cm tall 15 cm deep, 8 cm apart, in sheltered location to prevent stems from breaking in wind; full sun Hostas, ferns, ground covers, perennials
Snake's-head fritillaria or guinea-hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris) Zone 2
Purple or white nodding flowers 4-5 cm wide with chequered petals. Early spring; 40-50 cm tall 10 cm deep, 5 cm apart. Full sun/partial shade
Hostas, ferns and perennials such as daylilies or meadow rue
English bluebell (sometimes known at Scilla nutans but Hyacinthoides non-scriptus, is its correct name) Zone 5 Blue, pink or white. Mid spring 20-30 cm tall 8 cm deep, 8 cm apart; partial shade Best in woodland gardens under trees and shrubs, or even planted into lawn
Sylvestris tulip (Tulipa sylvestris) Zone 3
Nodding fragrant golden yellow flowers 6-8 cm wide. Mid spring, 35-40 cm tall 8 cm deep and apart. Full sun/part shade Ferns, foamflowers, hostas, periwinkle
Wild hyacinth (Camassia esculenta Syn. C. quamash)
Zone 3
A western North American native with upright spikes of blue star-like flowers. Early summer, 35-40 cm tall.
15 cm deep, 20 cm apart. Sun/partial shade. Likes moister soil than most bulbs. Grow through ground covers or with perennials such as daylilies, peonies and Siberian iris

Bulb grow-how

Spring-flowering bulbs are the easiest plants to grow. The most important thing is to plant them in fall: they need a winter’s nap to perform their spring magic. Planting tips:

  • Plant in late September or October when night temperatures fall to between 5°C to10°C. Don’t leave it too late—bulbs need about six weeks before the ground freezes to make root growth.
  • Plant in a well-drained soil where bulbs will get full sun or at least half a day’s sun in spring. Water thoroughly.
  • Plant pointed side up. Most bulbs are obvious, but some can be tricky. If you’re not sure which end is up, plant sideways. They’ll sort themselves out.
  • Bulbs come ready for flowering, so you don’t have to fertilize at planting. After they’ve flowered, sprinkle a small handful of bulb food around them to supply nutrients for next year’s blooms.
  • Just before the ground freezes, apply 5 to 7.5 cm of mulch (compost, wood chips or chopped up leaves). In spring, the bulbs will come up through the mulch.

Beauty in bloom For more wow impact in your spring garden, follow these planting pointers for bulbs:

  • Group bulbs together: Larger groupings of one kind of bulb have more design impact than isolated loners dotted around the garden. Try to concentrate spring bulbs in the part of the garden where they’ll make the biggest visual splash. 
  • Plant early bulbs close to the house: In early spring, you’re unlikely to make a chilly trip to the garden’s back corner to admire flowers, so plant early bulbs such as windflower or fritillarias close to the front steps or in a front garden bed where you can appreciate them.
  • Plant in a triangular arrangement: The triangle should point toward the viewer. By planting this way, your bulb “bouquet” will look larger than if you had planted a circular or square shape. 
  • Layer plantings: Use a low-growing bulb such as windflower to add a touch of bloom beneath taller daffodils or tulips or early flowering shrubs such as purple leaf sand cherry (Prunus x cistena). English bluebells can create a carpet of bloom under deciduous trees or shrubs.
  • Use bulbs as gap fillers: Wild hyacinths and alliums make terrific gap fillers between the spring and summer garden seasons. Just seven to ten of these bulbs will add visual punch to a flowerbed.
  • Pair bulbs with early perennials:  Emerging perennials complement spring-bloomers in the garden and provide pleasing contrasting foliage. Some early perennials such as cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), heartleaf brunnera (Brunnera macrophylla), bleeding heart (Dicentra species) and the low-growing ground cover sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) bloom with the bulbs. The foliage of daylilies (Hemerocallis), coral-bells or alum root (Heuchera species), peony and hosta also works beautifully with bulb flowers.

 A version of this article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Chatelaine magazine.

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