The bulb season may symbolize the end of the official gardening season for most of us, but it also propels us onwards into plans for next spring. It?s not much fun searching for bulb space in cramped borders, so putting in bulbs that take little space is just the thing. And that?s just one of the reasons small bulbs have been gaining in popularity for several years. This year, however, there are so many available a guide becomes valuable.

One of the many glories of bulbs is that most of us have more shade than we?d really like. But when the bulbs come out in the spring most of them come through blankets of leaves and mulch well before the trees have leafed out. So when a bulb says ?Needs sun? make sure it?s a spot that has sun in March even if it doesn?t right now.

Here are some of the bulbs I love, have found are never-fail (even against the squirrels, raccoons and skunks whose population explosion dominates my personal landscape):

Alliums are just about my favourite of all bulbs. They come in every size and colour imaginable. The gardening enemies above aren?t attracted to these bulbs. They are in the onion family which might explain their reticence for persistent munching. Designing a bulb garden with alliums in mind in easy. Masses of A. ?Purple sensation? combined with a sweetly scented white narcissus such as ?Thalia? it can?t be beaten. In the past year or so in gardens of those I admire greatly I?ve noticed A. schubertii. It stands alone given the size (45 cm). You can mix it in with shrubs or any statuesque plant such as large hostas or small shrubs. It?s listed in some catalogue as Z7, in others as Z 4. I think it?s worth taking the risk. The bright pink heads with long tail are so arresting you want several.

Species tulips have been in my garden since they were first cultivated for the market and not ripped from the wild. There are two I especially like but you?ll want to be careful with placement. They make colour statements so putting them with other harmonious bulbs is important. Tulipa batalini ?Bright Gem? is a sensuous yellow and should be clumped together in groups of ten or so along with muscari (bright blue) or Chionodoxa (blue with white starry centres). Do these as edgers to any border and it will be a standout.

I also like Tulipa pulchella violacea just because it?s such a riot of color (not my usual forte): the magenta exterior of the bloom has a poppy-like black at the base the interior demands to be looked into. The bulb I?d put it with is a Narcissus ?Jenny? small white and dazzling. Not for the faint of heart.

Camassia quamash is a native plant with the resonance of history behind is a tall (1M) bright blue starry spikes of flowers with grass-like foliage. All rise on a rigid stem with startling fresh shades of blue. They will naturalize and come out in early summer. This one is definitely hardy.

Narcissus ?Recuvus? got a huge push last year, so you will be seeing a lot of it again this year. It?s a fragrant bulb with white petals that float back as though in a strong wind with a bright yellow cup edged in red.

I haven?t found a problem with animals attacking species tulips but if you plant them with the bulbs they don?t like such as narcissus, you might get away unscathed. Otherwise make sure bulbs are planted deeply (more than three times the width) and covered with a thick layer of mulch so the area doesn?t look disturbed. This is a really important principal of bulb planting. And applies to all the bulbs mentioned even narcissus which is supposed to be poisonous. In my garden they?ll get dug up anyway if the soil isn?t protected with mulch or chicken wire. Last year chicken wire held down with bricks only slowed them down marginally.

For the first time, last year I yanked out a whole section of a border and devoted it entirely to scented bulbs. First of all I dug down about 8 inches in some places to almost a foot in others. Did absolutely nothing to the soil and tossed in the largest (narcissus, allium and hyacinth), a layer of soil went back in the border which was about five feet long and four feet wide. Hyacinthus ?Peter Stuyvesant? A deep blue-purple could be sniffed in the warm spring air from about 4 metres.


Where to buy bulbs and get catalogues:
? is the garden section of Chapters. They are having wonderful specials on species tulips and for those who like to order up a border, try their selection of scented bulbs:

Here are some of the best catalogues I?ve seen in years:

  • Gardenimport Inc., Thornhill ON
  • The Perennial Gardens, 13139 224th St., Maple Ridge BC, V4R 2P6
  • Mason-Hogue Gardens, 3520 Durham Rd. #1, R. R. #4, Uxbridge, ON L9P 1R4 $2
  • Veseys, York, PEI
  • bud (fine perennials & bulbs), 107 Hocken Ave., Toronto M6G 2K1
  • Dominion Seed House, PO Box 2500, Georgetown ON, L7G 5L6
  • Breck?s, Port Burwell, Ont. N0J 1T0 $4 1-800-644-5505

Originally published: September 9, 2000. Globe and Mail