Seeing the fresh green growing tips of spring bulbs poking out of the earth heralds the end of dark winter days and brings a welcome splash of color to the garden. For most people, the most familiar bulb is the large-cupped, colorful Dutch tulips, but these don’t perform well in our North Texas gardens and there are few gardeners with the time and the budget to re-plant them every year. Don’t despair though because there are several bulbs that will reliably return year after year, don’t require pre-chilling, will naturalize (multiply over time) and can remain in the ground year round. Here are a few that I’d like to introduce you to.
Daffodils (also known as Narcissi) are so cheerful you can’t help but smile when you see them, and their beautiful colors stand out against the fresh, green of spring. They come in an astonishing selection of sizes and colors, some with frilly cups (the center section) and many are fragrant. Daffodils are classified into 13 divisions, based on their physical characteristics. Daffodil varieties that are consistently recommended by the experts (Phil Huey, Daffodil Society member who has been testing varieties since 1990; Doug Welch, Texas A&M Extension Horticulturalist; and Chris Wiesinger, Owner of Southern Bulb Company) include:
N. x odorus ‘Campernelle’: golden yellow petals and cup, slightly frilly, fragrant, early season, 12-24” tall.
N. tazetta ‘Falconet’: bright yellow petals with an orange cup, fragrant, mid-season, 20” tall.
N. tazetta ‘Grand Primo’: white petals with a pale yellow cup, fragrant, early season, 10-12” tall.
The medium green, narrow, strappy foliage grows in an erect to somewhat sprawling clump. Flowers appear singly or in clusters depending on the variety. There are daffodil varieties that bloom early, mid and late season, so you can have a display for several months if you select varieties from each category. Plant bulbs 6-8” deep and 6” apart.
Hyacinthoides hispanica (commonly called Spanish Bluebell) has medium green, strappy leaves from which rises a rigid flower stalk that typically holds 15-20 hanging, bell-shaped, blue flowers that rise above the foliage. They grow 12-15” tall and bloom mid-season. Plant bulbs 3-4” deep and 4-6” apart.
Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ (commonly called Summer Snowflake) has beautiful dark green, grassy foliage that forms an upright, vase-shaped clump of foliage, but it’s the flowers that will win over your heart. 2-5 fragrant, dainty, clear white, bell-shaped flowers punctuated with small green dots on the tip nod on tall, hollow stalks. ‘Gravetye Giant’ grows 12-18” tall and blooms mid to late season. Plant bulbs 3-4” deep and 4-6” apart.
Muscari neglectum (commonly called Grape Hyacinth) is loved by the bees for its sweet, grapey fragrance. The short bloom spikes hold small racemes of pendant dark blue bottle-like flowers with white tips that bloom for weeks. They naturalize well and can also be forced to bloom indoors. Muscari is beautiful planted as thick borders along garden beds, in front of taller Daffodils, or in drifts that resemble rivers meandering through woodlands. Muscari grows 8” tall and blooms mid-season. Plant the small bulbs 5” deep and 3-4” apart.
Species tulips have narrow, linear, gray-green leaves. The bowl-shaped flowers are the traditional tulip shape, but the blooms are petite, with sharply pointed tips, and open in the sun to form a star; flowers close up at night and remain closed on overcast days. Here are a few varieties that I have grown and enjoyed in my garden:
T. batalinii ‘Bright Gem’: yellow flushed with a warm orange, early to mid-season bloom, 6” tall.
T. clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ (red that opens to a white interior, early season bloom, 12” tall).
T. linifolia (brilliant scarlet red flowers with a black base, late season bloom, 6” tall).
Plant Species tulip bulbs 4-5” deep and 6” apart.
When purchasing bulbs, choose those that are firm and heavy and try to plant them as soon as possible after purchase. If you must store them, place them in a cool, dry, well ventilated place (do not chill bulbs in the refrigerator). The best time to plant bulbs that bloom in the spring is between October and December; it’s easiest for me to remember is to plant them around Thanksgiving.
Choose a planting site that has a full day of sun in the winter. Bulbs can be planted under deciduous trees as they will bloom before most of the leaves appear on the tree. Soil should be loosened and amended with compost for increased soil fertility and drainage. If you are planting bulbs in an existing garden bed add compost to the soil removed from the planting hole.
Water well after planting, but you don’t want the soil to be soggy (which can cause the bulb to rot). Unless there is an extended period without rainfall, bulbs won’t need supplemental water (which make them great choices in water-wise gardens). In fact, bulbs prefer to be dry during their summer dormancy.
When shoots emerge and again when blooms appear, sprinkle a small amount of a slow release nitrogen fertilizer over the area (sprinkle lightly as too much fertilizer can cause lush foliage with a decrease in blooms). After bloom, allow the foliage to die back naturally. This allows the bulb to store energy for next year’s bloom; if you remove the foliage prematurely it may not bloom again. Foliage should be completely yellow before cutting it back (braiding or tying the foliage is unnecessary). I have to confess that the yellowing foliage is not attractive. Consider planting late emerging perennials like Daylilies, Hostas and Ferns to help hide the yellowing foliage.
As the bulbs multiply, you may find that they begin to crowd each other which leads to reduced bloom. When that happens, use a spading fork to gently lift the bulbs, carefully separate the small bulbs from the base of the plant re-plant them in other places in the garden (or share with a friend). The larger the bulb, the sooner it will re-bloom. The best time to thin bulbs is when the foliage is almost gone so that the plant is no longer actively growing, bulb has been re-energized and you an see where you need to dig.
Here are ten design tips for planting bulbs:
1. Plant bulbs in groups of five or more in loose, informal clusters.
2. To create a bold visual statement, plant 50 or more.
3. Plant in drifts of one color for small spaces; plant drifts of two or three colors in large spaces.
4. Mix varying sizes of flowers for an informal look.
5. Plant low growing bulbs in front of taller plants (including spring flowering and evergreen shrubs or in front of large rocks).
6. Intermingle spring flowering annuals and perennials with bulbs.
7. Plant in layers with shallow bulbs planted on top of deeply planted bulbs.
8. When planting along a pathway, stagger groups on each side of the path.
9. Plan for a succession of bloom by choosing varieties that bloom early, mid and late season.
10. Enjoy the show!
I hope that you’ll consider planting bulbs this fall. They are beautiful, hardy, low maintenance and you’ll enjoy them for years to come.
The Collin County Master Gardeners have taken some of the guesswork out of choosing bulbs for our area by offering selections they have researched and grown in their gardens. Mark your calendar to attend the 15th Annual Bulb & Perennial Mart on Saturday, October 13, 2018 from 9:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. (or until sold out) at Myers Park & Event Center (7117 County Road 166, McKinney). You can also order online at https://www.ccmgatx.org/bulbs.