Originally published: 2002. Globe and Mail.
In bulb season, gardeners become visionaries. Bulbs are not just mere markers between summer and winter, they are a luminous bridge to the future. We look at these ugly little things and see sublime panoply of colour. And, this year, the trend is to scented bulbs which will add yet another subtle level to the spring garden. Tulips are getting seriously frou frou, with layers and frills and stripes on the bloom. And the bold striped foliage on some of the hybrid tulips give them two seasons: one with bloom on and the other with the bloom off.
With all this choice, you must have something in mind when you plant, or you end up with an inarticulate mass. Bulbs can create harmonious combinations among themselves, or provide successive waves of colour as they bloom in different seasons (early, middle and late spring, and summer). Imagine your garden as a tapestry and that you are embroidering with bulbs.
And don?t be carried away by the brilliant candy-store colours of the photos on labels and in catalogues. Those old red and yellow combinations are fine for candy corn, but today, blue and yellow is more sophisticated, more exquisite and therefore more versatile; you can go on to add burgundy or pink or, yes, lime (Tulipa `Spring Green,? which I cannot resist and have ordered another 100). Try purple and green with white; try pink and blue; try orange and blue. Then make a list of when these bulbs bloom and how big they?ll get.
Some bulbs are great little carpeters and those are the ones to buy by the masses if you are just starting out. Tiny Scilla and muscari (grape hyacinth) are intense blue bulbs ideal as a background. They can be scattered about almost like a stream flowing through the other bulbs and perennials or be used as the edging for a border. Back them up with small tulips such as T. batalini `Bright Gem? or T. Sylvestris, which is not only a golden yellow but is also scented, and you?ve got the beginning of a garden scene. Both are species tulips, the smaller, often hardier, parents of the great big hybrids we?re more familiar with. Call me crazy but I?m convinced that species tulips just aren?t the same temptation for squirrels. Here are the some of the best:
Tulipa tarda (white with yellow base will naturalize though slowly), T. linifolia (bright red flowers 8 cm across with a black base), T. pulchella var. Humulis with dainty but eyeball-searing magenta blooms, T. turkestanica (cheery white star-like bloom with a yellow centre), or the horned T. acuminata with its twisted red and yellow blooms.
Tuck the smaller bulbs among your perennials; as the perennials emerge they?ll cover up the yellowing leaves. For larger plants such as hybrid tulips and narcissus (‘Jenny’ and ?Thalia? with seductive white blooms) you have to give the foliage issue serious thought.
Some of the big bulbs have leaves that hang on until you want to just pull out the whole lot and be done with it. Resist the temptation: The leaves provide the food for next year?s blooms. With planning, they can rot happily and unobtrusively away under shrubs and perennials and behind bunches of fantastic new annuals. Small bulbs work well everywhere – layered in containers or filling obscure corners in shade or sun. And these days, they go way beyond the crocuses and snowdrops. Ixiolirion with small funnel-shaped violet blue blooms; Puschkinia scilloides is related to Ixiolirion with open bell-shaped bluish white flowers; and Ipheon uniflorum.
Start the season with masses of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). Even in semi-shade you will have six weeks of bloom. The tiny chionodoxa, with pale blue flower and central white star, is, bar none, the best value for dollar going. A dozen or two will turn into an azure sea within in a few years. They come up early and disappear nicely without a trace.
Follow with eranthus (winter aconites) which has brilliant yellow blooms over glossy green leaves for six weeks under deciduous shade trees. Then in May and June, you can have four to five weeks of Ixilirion.
Alliums, those gorgeous members of the onion family, will pop up regularly from May right into summer with the right planning. It?s impossible to have too many of the little ones like the delicate pink A. rosea. And make a statement with the big purple heads of the very tall A. giganteum. A new cultivar with a purple heart and sprongs of green hair (called, of course A. `Hair?), should appeal to those who want a conversation piece and something to spike a flower arrangement. And the most fascinating of all are the elegant Nectaroscordum siculum in a class of its own with long elegant (1m high) stems and cream coloured bells with purplish and green tints at the base. Magnificent, though one can only afford a few of these. Fritillerias, with nodding bells so slender they can fit in anywhere, also have many seasons. The huge F. imperialis are toxic to squirrels that they are worth having a few around. I?ve never gotten any to last for more than a year however. Concentrate on the little beauties such as F. meleagris with a checkerboard flower in pale purple and white or F. pallidiflora.
When you are planning next year?s bulb garden, make sure its season is as long and as dense as possible. Give up all thoughts of popping one or two in here or there. If you can?t afford to buy more than 50 bulbs, mass them in together for a good display and take pictures so you?ll know where things are when you do this again next year. Plant enough for everyone including the wretched squirrels. And keep that vision of spring in your head for the dreary months ahead.