Anticipation is a big part of the pleasure of gardening, and good gardeners are always planning ahead. When you plant tulip or daffodil bulbs in your garden in the fall, you can be sure that spring will be gorgeous.
Professional garden designers depend on tulips, daffodils and other spring-flowering bulbs to bring a garden quickly to life after the chill of winter.
"I use them as a punch at the entrance to a garden, I use them in cutting gardens, and I really pack them in," says Ginny Duerr, a landscape designer in Philadelphia. "It wakes people up in spring."
When she plants in fall, Duerr relies on carefully designed mixtures of colorful tulips from ColorBlends, a mail-order bulb company that specializes in traffic-stopping combinations of two, three or as many as eight different types and colors of tulips.
Pre-planned combinations are just the thing for busy designers and home gardeners alike, Duerr says. "I don't have to think about it," she says. "I don't have to sift through three catalogs -- it's all in the bag." ColorBlends is one of several companies that offer these foolproof mixtures. Some are designed to deliver a burst of color all at once in spring. Others offer a succession of subtly changing bloom that continues for weeks in cool spring temperatures.
Janie McCabe, owner of M.J. McCabe Garden Design in Northford, Connecticut, likes to place her spring-bulb plantings against the deep green backdrop of evergreen shrubs around a home's foundations. "I try to stage it so there's always something in bloom from early March right through to mid-July," she says. Little bulbs, such as scilla and chionodoxa, are the first to bloom in her designs, followed by daffodils, with an eye-popping crescendo of bright tulips. As the tulips fade, dramatic alliums stand tall among emerging perennials in a flower bed and carry the spring-bulb season through to early summer.
Almost 25 percent of McCabe's business consists of planting spring-flowering bulbs for clients every fall. "I tell my clients that it's really important to incorporate bulbs" in their gardens, she says. "It will give you the oomph you need in spring." She doesn't tell them how much they should spend, but just says, "we have an opportunity here." She recommends planting hundreds of bulbs, which, including planting, costs around $400 to $500; some clients spend $1,000 or more. These are designer prices, she says; to save money, plant the bulbs yourself -- but don't skimp on the number of bulbs.
McCabe and her landscaping crews make quick work of planting thousands of spring-flowering bulbs every fall. They use sturdy trowels: "Wiggle it back and forth, slip the bulbs in -- we can do 100 tulips in 15 minutes," she says. Each bulb is planted about 8 inches deep.
For a sharply tailored look, start your planning with a color scheme, says Kathy Simpson, owner of KMS Gardens and Design in Chicago. Simpson loves bright colors, and she likes combinations that emphasize pink, orange, red and purple. "I also key off of other plants that will be in bloom when the bulbs bloom," she says. She chooses purple tulips for plantings under redbud trees, for example.
For her clients in the city, Simpson plants tulips and other bulbs in the parkway (between the sidewalk and the street) and, in front gardens, packs 200 to 500 bulbs into raised beds, in front of hedges and around shrubs. The bulbs are planted almost shoulder-to-shoulder in patches, but, she says, "I'm not lining things up in rows. I scatter the bulbs. They look more natural that way."
To discourage rabbits, she includes daffodils in her designs because rabbits stay away from tulips planted among daffodils.
Simpson used to invent her own combinations of spring bulbs, matching colors, heights and bloom times for a splashy show, but she now relies on the expertly choreographed combinations from ColorBlends. She includes small bulbs, such as species tulips and little grape hyacinths, for early color. "My goal is to have as long a season of bloom as possible," she says. Sometimes the color scheme changes from pale to dark over several weeks of bloom. Some combinations are playful mixtures of complementary colors.
"That's the biggest thing for me: color," she says. "I like groupings, and I like little vignettes, but other than that, it's one of the beauties of bulbs -- you can't do much to them that is not going to look good."
GET A HEAD START ON SPRING
Spring-flowering bulbs from mail-order specialists are shipped out from the end of September through the fall. Garden shops usually receive their supplies of bulbs in mid- to late September. For the best selection, it's important to order early or buy bulbs as soon as they are available, and then store them in a cool, dry place until you're ready to plant, which can be as late as December.
The right time to plant is when the weather turns. When you find you need a sweater or a jacket outdoors, and you're rustling around in your toolshed for the leaf rake, when frost kills the tomato plants, and when mums replace the petunias in flowerpots on porches, spring-flowering bulbs can go into the ground. Garden designer Kathy Simpson and her landscaping crews start planting in Chicago in October and try to finish up by Thanksgiving, but sometimes they are still planting in early December.
Where winters are mild, pre-chilling the bulbs (some companies will do this for you) simulates the winter temperatures they need to produce their spring show. In warm climates, planting in December (after pre-chilling) is the best strategy.
Tulips often come back to bloom in subsequent years, but, like other designers, Simpson plants tulips as though they are annual flowers: Designers need the space tulips occupy in spring for summer plantings. Tulips are not adapted to the regular watering from irrigation systems, and they are vulnerable to voles. "Some people are shocked, but we lose 40 to 50 percent (of tulips) when we leave them in the ground," Simpson says. Daffodils and other spring-flowering bulbs are more reliable repeat bloomers. Just don't water deeply around them during the summer.
Where deer are a problem, tulips can be a challenge. Janie McCabe, a garden designer in Northford, Connecticut, pre-treats tulip bulbs with Ropel, which discourages squirrels, voles and other pests, and remains effective for up to a year. Ropel can also be sprayed on emerging foliage to discourage deer. Ginny Duerr, a landscape designer in Philadelphia, relies on Deer Scram, which repels deer and rabbits. These products are effective if they are used properly and regularly. "We use it every week," Duerr says.
-- ColorBlends, colorblends.com, offers dozens of different combinations of tulips. Bold colors predominate, but there is also a broad selection of tulips in romantic palettes, and single-color blends of different tulips that bloom in succession. Daffodils, alliums and many more spring-flowering bulbs are also available. ColorBlends offers pre-chilling services for customers in the south.
-- John Scheepers, johnscheepers.com, and Brent and Becky's Bulbs, brentandbeckysbulbs.com, also sell tulip mixtures and many other spring-flowering bulbs.
-- Janie McCabe, M.J. McCabe Garden Design, mjmgardendesign.com
-- Kathy Simpson, KMS Gardens and Design, kmsgardensanddesign.com
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