Tulips, daffodils, hyacinth—all, harbingers of spring. And why not? They’re pretty enough. And they have a charming familiarity that makes them a classic choice for gardeners looking to set the stage for a springtime show. Perhaps you’re the dramatic type, looking for something exotic to excite your landscape. If so, give not-so-ordinary bulbs a try. They’re as easy to plant and maintain as their more commonplace cousins, but fit the bill when it comes to expressing a green thumb’s inner wild child.
Lucky for the renegade gardener, you don’t have to look far to find these special bulbs. That’s because the market has done an excellent job reacting to consumer demand for the delightfully unusual. Purchasing anything from Bulgarian ornamental onion to Grecian windflower is a snap with all the various mail-order catalogs and online storefronts at our fingertips today.
But with temperatures plummeting and the holidays just around the corner, planting is probably the last thing on most people’s minds. If you garden in the North, however, it’s literally “last call” when it comes to planting spring-blooming bulbs. That’s because, to put on one heck of an early season display, spring-blooming “hardy” bulbs must experience a cool, dormant period—about 12 to 16 weeks—to bloom. A good rule of thumb for northern gardeners is to plant bulbs six weeks before the ground freezes.
Southern gardeners, on the other hand, can plant hardy bulbs in early January after they’ve been chilled by artificial means, such as in a refrigerator crisper (take note, however, that gasses from ripening fruit can damage the bulbs). Or gardeners in these milder areas can look for bulbs bred to adapt to their short, temperate winters.
Here are some other basics that are good to know before you plant any bulb:
Plant bulbs pointy end up. While it may seem simple enough, planting bulbs upside down is an easy mistake. The pointed end is where the stem originates, while the root end is generally flatter and looks like the base of an onion. While a lucky few may break through the soil surface and bloom, more often than not, the plant wastes oodles of energy doing so, resulting in a lackluster display.
Plant at the appropriate depth. Large bulbs like tulips and daffodils should be planted about 6 and 8 inches deep, respectively. Plant crocus, hyacinth, and like smaller bulbs 3 to 5 inches deep. As for spacing, a good rule of thumb is to set bulbs three to four times their diameter apart. Be sure to give them a good soaking after planting!
Mulch. A couple inches of mulch, such as evergreen boughs, straw, or marsh hay, reduces the risk of early sprouting and other weather-related complications. Just be sure to wait until the ground freezes before applying.
Leave on fading foliage. Although it may look unattractive, it’s important to keep the leaves on the plants until they brown or at least 6 weeks have passed since they bloomed. The leaves direct energy to the bulb, essentially feeding it, which is why you’re able to enjoy blooms year after year.
Plant in groups. While individual bulb blooms are beautiful unto themselves, there are ways to up the ante when it comes to impact. Best planted in groups of three or more, a mass of bulbs concentrates colors and creates a focal point that’s hard to ignore. The same can be said when bulbs are used as a ground cover, planted in border beds, or displayed as a “bouquet” in planters.
If planting a variety of bulbs, be sure to plant low-growing bulbs in front of taller varieties, especially if they bloom around the same time.
6 “Out-of-the-Box” Bulbs to Plant Today!
1. Allium (Allium)
‘Silver Spring’ has tiny white blossoms with pink-purple centers; ‘Fireworks’ has a distinct form that earns its namesake.
2. Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda)
Try ‘Mixed’ for daisy-like flowers in a variety of colors like blue, pink, and white.
3. Checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris)
‘Saturnus’ boast reddish purple flowers, while ‘Charon’ has deep purple blooms.
4. Indian hyacinth (Camassia)
Plant ‘Blue Melody’ for impressive spikes of dark violet-blue flowers and variegated foliage.
5. Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)
Ranging in colors from scarlet red to yellow, its nodding, bell-shaped flowers rest beneath a “crowns” of stiff green leaves.
6. Species tulips (Tulipa)
Known for their uniqueness and ability to naturalize well, species tulips are the wild cousin of the hybrid variety. Try ‘Rockgarden Mixed Colors’ for an assortment of brightly colored blooms on short stems.
Also check out how to save bulbs.