Shopping for flower bulbs: It’s one of the more joyful summertime garden chores, certainly better than dragging hoses and sprinklers around or keeping ahead of the most incorrigible weeds.
Bulb catalogs and their corresponding websites have no shortage of enticing choices, and now is the time to order spring-flowering bulbs for fall planting — or risk that some will be sold out. But gardeners can suffer from a lack of creative direction in catalog pages that show product headshots of a single flower or a large group of the same variety. That can lead to uninspired planting, barely scratching the surface of the potential that bulbs offer in garden-making.
Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania, a former private estate with 35 acres that’s been open to visitors since 1993, wants to show us otherwise. It calls itself “a pleasure garden” and is known for a creative use of plants.
“We try to be informative and inspirational for home gardeners, so that the whole garden is a demonstration garden for our visitors,” said R. William Thomas, Chanticleer’s executive director and head gardener.
That’s his assignment to the seven horticulturists on his team, each of whom manages an area of the property: To create visual excitement and artistry, while keeping in mind the teaching potential — ideas visitors can use on a range of budgets and garden sizes.
For instance, how a $3.50 packet or two of lettuce or purple-leaf mustard seeds could grow a whole underplanting of seedlings to show off this year’s tulips much more beautifully than bare soil or mulch. That’s one takeaway from Chanticleer’s prominent Teacup Garden, in the courtyard where visitors enter the grounds.
At Chanticleer, there are some massed uses of a single bulb variety or two — the generous waves of lavender-blue Camassia in the lawn running alongside a creek, for example. But most bulb plantings are on a smaller scale that any gardener could take a cue from. Even larger ones like the Camassia, or Chanticleer’s no-mow fescue lawn with Darwin tulips and daffodils interspersed throughout, could be scaled down to work in a backyard or a small island within a larger piece of mowed turf.
Thomas — along with Lisa Roper, the horticulturist in charge of the Gravel Garden, and Eric Hsu, Chanticleer’s plant information coordinator — shared design inspiration and practical tips, as well as some favorite varieties.
For a backdrop, try a companion plant
Choose a companion plant as a backdrop for bulbs, instead of a canvas of brown mulch.
In the Gravel Garden, a gentle, south-facing slope where plantings are in naturalistic sweeps rather than formal beds, Roper has been resourceful in showing off early blooming bulbs. “There isn’t much going on in March and April to pair bulbs with, so I am really scrambling,” she said.
Some nevertheless striking results include the conifer-like needles of Sedum rupestre Angelina, which make a vivid yellow-orange pool beneath tiny, purple-and-blue Iris reticulata. Elsewhere, the sedum is well matched with grape hyacinth and early tulips.
In another pairing — Orange Emperor tulips with Mexican hair grass (Nassella tenuissima, hardy to Zone 6, despite its common name) — Roper leaves the grass in place through the winter rather than cleaning it up in the fall, because its texture and warm tones make a great foil for the bulbs in the spring.
Another standby is the succulent-like Euphorbia myrsinites, with its blue-green foliage and acid-yellow early blooms, paired with Orange Emperor tulips, the arrestingly pale lavender-blue Muscari Valerie Finnis and a small Narcissus called Hawera.
Elsewhere, a bed of a sedge (Carex) is punctuated by the 8-inch-wide violet globes of Allium christophii; the two have been happy together for eight years.
Emerging hostas, or even peony foliage, Hsu said, can also make good companions.
“People forget how peonies come up at first with reddish-green tones,” he said. “When backlit, especially with tulips or alliums, it makes a very arresting combination.”
In his very public Philadelphia home garden, a 14-foot-long, sidewalk-facing bed, he uses other colorful foliage to set off bulbs, too, including dark-colored Geranium maculatum Espresso and a gold lamb’s ear, Stachys byzantina Primrose Heron.
There is one bulb, at least, that needs no outside assistance. Allium karataviense, the 10-inch-tall Turkestan onion, provides its own backdrop: wide, gray-green foliage that handsomely sets off its pale lilac, spherical flower. It has been growing nicely in the Gravel Garden for years.
Use late-performing perennials to conceal fading foliage
Many gardeners want to cut off bulbs’ foliage too soon, but it serves a critical role, nourishing the bulb below for next year’s performance, so it should be allowed to photosynthesize until it fades in place.
“Think about summer and fall-blooming plants to plant around the bulbs,” said Roper, who uses various asters to good effect. When bulbs share space with something that emerges or shows off after the blooms are gone, the garden will hang together without so many holes. Summer-blooming butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) are among her standbys.
Or choose bulbs with less conspicuous foliage that doesn’t need hiding, Roper suggested: “Species tulips have much smaller leaves, so there is not much left after flowering, which is nice.” One she especially likes is Tulipa whittallii, which has bronze-orange flowers feathered with subtle hints of lavender and green.
Ready to transform part of the lawn into a bulb bed?
Besides Chanticleer’s impressive mass of Camassia in the lawn beside the creek and its no-mow tulip-and-daffodil lawn, the estate has another planting that pairs bulbs with grass: a spot at the far end of the property appropriately called the Bulb Meadow.
“The only flowers in it are bulbs,” Thomas said.
But unlike the single-bulb Camassia display, this one has several: In spring, daffodils, tulips and bluebells (Hyacinthoides) show off, and “then in mid-June, after their leaves die, we mow it,” he said. In mid to late July, Lycoris, or resurrection lilies, come up for about a month, “and we try to mow it one more time after they fade, before it becomes pink with colchicums, the autumn crocus. In between, it looks like a mowed field, but that’s OK.”
Combine bulbs that flower simultaneously
This makes for an arresting display, but it takes experimentation. Catalog language isn’t always helpful about exactly when bulbs will bloom, because predicting precise dates for customers in various regions with different garden conditions is impossible.
Visit public gardens to get pairing ideas, said Roper, who matches up Shogun tulip, grape hyacinth and Narcissus Minnow as one concurrent trio.
Or explore online: Many public gardens, including Chanticleer, have photographic archives of what’s in bloom from week to week, which can offer ideas.
A caveat, from Hsu: Even if bulbs bloom together the first year, some pre-mixed combinations in catalogs may not repeat year after year in your conditions. “Why people fail with tulip and daffodil mixes,” he said, “is that one wants a hot, dry summer and the other, not as much. In schemes with both, we sometimes find the tulips peter out and the daffodils go on.”
Consider the color white
In catalogs, it’s often the rich, deep colors that catch the eye first. But at Chanticleer, subtler aspects of color play go into making plant pairings: The yellow throat of a certain tulip, for instance, will pick up on the foliage of the perennial beneath it.
Hsu put in a word for another palette: white.
“I don’t get to enjoy my garden during the day,” he said. “And in the evening, when I get home, the white is tranquil. I love bold, hot colors, but they don’t show as well as restful white then.”
A succession of white bulbs, layered into his “perennial-packed” raised bed, likewise sparkles on cloudy days when rich colors may not.
First come the snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis (the common snowdrop) and elwesii (the giant), which he especially recommends, “because the foliage is really beautiful, and the flowers more noticeable,” he said. “Everything about it is very elegant.”
Next is white glory-of-the-snow, Chionodoxa luciliae Alba, and then tulips take over (he recommends the variety Hakuun). The final show: Allium White Giant, the tallest of white onions, at 3 feet or more.
Can you outsmart animals?
Well, maybe. Some bulbs are naturally more animal-resistant, but tulips, lilies and crocus are among the most vulnerable, something many gardeners learn the hard way. Among the crocus, some gardeners find that Crocus tommasinianus, the so-called tommies, are less often disturbed.
Narcissus is always on animal-resistant lists, along with Allium, Camassia and most Fritillaria. Hyacinths and foxtail lilies (Eremurus) are often rated for deer-resistance.
Among smaller bulbs, consider snowdrops (Galanthus), snowflake (Leucojum), winter aconite (Eranthis), glory of the snow (Chionodoxa), Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), Ornithogalum, Scilla, grape hyacinth (Muscari) and autumn crocus (Colchicum).
For rarer or more expensive bulbs, Hsu said, the staff creates boxlike underground cages from hardware cloth for protection.
“I also sprinkle blood meal in the hole before backfilling, and on top after planting, to ward off chipmunks and squirrels,” said Roper, who built a cage for some precious saffron crocus.
“And plant deeper,” said Hsu, who is more likely to encounter gray squirrels in his urban setting. “I find that they are lazy diggers, and if I plant deeper, the bulbs are less likely to get eaten.”