Get Growing: More space for bulbs

At the Bellevue Botanical Garden, bulbs have their moment mingled among grasses and evergreens.

At the Bellevue Botanical Garden, bulbs have their moment mingled among grasses and evergreens.
Erica Browne Grivas

April always feels like Seattle is bursting with abundance. The buds are bursting and birds are singing, ferns are unfolding (unfronding?), and especially, the bulbs are popping.

Coming in fits and starts, first the snowdrops startle us with their plucky determination to bloom despite February’s icy gloom. Crocus follow, then species tulips, chinodoxa, muscari, and narcissi. And let’s not forget the star of the Skagit Valley, the tulips that are opening in time for the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival (although if you go in March, be bathed in gold as the daffodils come up).

Every day is a new amazement, when I am surprised by how beautiful anemones are, or the tiny painted blooms of Dutch iris, and I think, “Why don’t I grow more of these?” 

The answer lies in being creative. Bulbs are efficient beings, with all that flower potential somehow packed into a small space. They are small and have few roots. You can fit many more than should be possible into a one-foot-wide planting hole. 

Take a tip from the Northwest Flower and Garden Festival designers, who always pack their designs full-to-bursting with daffodils and tulips. Now is the time to walk your garden and flag the perfect spots where you can cram in more bulbs in the fall. This can be in your mind, your garden journal, or physically outdoors with stones or a marker. Look around, and you’ll start seeing endless places to fit them in.

All I ask is: 

• Think about color – plan simple schemes that maximize your surroundings at this time

• Buy large amounts of fewer varieties for high impact

• Buy twice as many bulbs as you think you need, and 

• Plant them close together – they can even be touching

Here are some great places to start:

Your lawn: This is number one, because, really, it’s not doing anything else. You will add flower power, and if you choose pollinator-attracting blossoms like crocus, muscari and narcissus you’ll boost the biodiversity in your yard and feed bees during the lean weeks of spring. The easiest way to do this is with a bulb auger to drill many holes quickly, tossing the bulbs in. 

Under and around deciduous shrubs and trees: In winter, your hydrangeas, lilac, and apple trees don’t look like much – they shine other times of year. Planting some colorful bulbs can elevate that space in winter, adding verve while the shrubs are sleeping. Even for deciduous shrubs and trees with nice winter interest, like Japanese maples, corokia, and witch hazels (Hamammelis species), bulbs will accentuate them like jewelry. One neighbor has a paper-bark maple underplanted with orange tulips that light up that rust-colored bark.  Look for color echoes in emerging leaves to paint beautiful pictures – an emerging spirea may be chartreuse, rust, and magenta – there’s a tulip for that. Or go the other way dancing with contrast using blue or purple flowers.

In front of deciduous grasses and emerging perennials: After enjoying the straw tassels of Maiden Grass and Feather Reed Grass in winter, I usually cut back my deciduous grasses around February and March to allow the new growth to come in unencumbered. This leaves a big bare spot, which could easily be filled with? You guessed it! Meanwhile, seek out color pairings for emerging perennial leaves, like fresh green hostas and colorful heucheras. As the bulbs’ foliage fades, the perennials and grasses will graciously cover it up.

In front of evergreen trees, shrubs and grasses: You know what makes dark, glossy leaves pop? Bright and light-colored bulbs! Play off your conifers, black mondo grass, and golden carex with all your favorite colors. Dark green and black look classic with white or orange, dreamy with peach or pink, and zazzy with yellow.  Burgundy, like certain maples, nandina, and barberries, sings against most colors, but especially red, yellow, orange, or magenta.  Blue (seen in crocus, grape hyacinth, dutch iris, hyacinth, chinodoxa and anemone) and chartreuse (some daffodils and “green” tulips) look great with most every other color. 

So, what have we learned?  While they need adequate winter sun and well-drained soil,  there’s a potential place for bulbs everywhere in your garden beds, even in your lawn. Start making your list now while you have time before the rest of the garden wakes up and grabs all your attention – you’ll want to be ordering your bulbs by June-ish.