How to Plant a Bulb Garden
If you have you always wanted to plant a bulb garden, but not been sure how to go about it this article will give you some ideas for wonderful plant combinations, bulbs which extend the 'bulb flowering season' beyond spring and how to plan your garden.
To keep the range of plants under consideration quite broad I will include corms, such as crocuses and gladioli under the bulb umbrella.
There are decisions to make before you start your bulb garden.
Do you want a garden where 90-100% of the plants are bulbs or do you want one where bulbs are the main focus making up perhaps 50% of the plants?
Do you want a formal or informal garden?
Do you want to devote part of your garden to bulbs or all of it?
Do you want bulbs to be the focus of the garden for the whole year or just for spring?
Do you want to specialise in one type of bulb e.g. tulips or a wide variety?
Formal Bulb Gardens
Formal bulb gardens are ideal for showing off very bold bulbs en mass or for displaying a collection of bulbs if you are keen to specialise in one or two species. If you can afford to replace the bulbs each year you can create displays and pull the bulbs out once they have flowered, so that you aren't left waiting for the leaves to die down. An alternative is to plant the bulbs in a bulb basket. Once they have finished flowering you can dig up the basket and replant it out of sight whilst the bulbs die down.
You could also make use of bulbs planted in tubs which can be moved out of the way to die down and replaced with a different tub of bulbs in flower.
Bulbs can also be used as the focus plant in formal mixed bedding displays such as the one pictured right in Burnley town, UK 2012. Here tulips add eyecatching height behind the polyanthus and daisies.
Formal gardens are usually made up of geometric shapes which may be defined by structural plants such as box hedging and or hard landscaping.
A galanthophile is a person who really really loves snowdrops and tries to collect lots of different varieties of them. To most of us these snowdrop varieties look rather alike, but galanthophiles treasure the tiny differences between the named species.
Making a Bulb Collection
Some people go mad for just one species of bulb. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 17th century, whilst witches were being single-mindedly persecuted across Europe by some people, there was another type of mania affecting others - 'tulipmania' as people eagerly sought to purchase rare varieties of tulip.
Modern collectors have even more named bulb varieties to choose from as growers have worked to bred new varieties of flower to appeal to gardeners. For example tulip breeders have been working to produce a black tulip. One success has been the 'queen of the night'. An expensive bulb when it first went on sale, it is now available in quantity at reasonable prices. Whilst it is a dark purple rather than black; it is still striking.
A crucial part of maintaining a bulb collection is making sure you keep the names attached to the right bulbs. Again bulb baskets can be useful here - you can attach a tag with the name of the variety to the basket. Alternatively you could use a raised bed system with a different variety grown in each small bed. Bear in mind that if you grow varieties close together in the same bed it will be easy to see what they are when in flower, but if like with tulips you dig them up after the foliage has died down to store them it is often hard to tell which variety a bulb is.
Displaying Small Bulbs
If you collect a low growing species of bulb such as snowdrops or dwarf iris (Iris reticulata) it is really nice to be able to see the flowers at eye level without having to crouch.
It's almost essential with the different varieties of snowdrops given that the minute differences may be tucked inside the nodding flower and impossible to spot from even a short distance.
Outdoor shelving is ideal for this. The bulbs are grown in pots or small tubs and displayed at various heights. You can rearrange then on a daily basis if you want to bring different varieties to eye level when they are at their peak.
Informal Bulb Gardens
My favourite type of bulb garden uses bulbs as the focus but matches them with other plants. Rather than placing the bulbs in regimental blocks they are planted in irregular drifts.
The key to this sort of garden is pairing the bulbs with suitable companions which complement them. One of my favourite tulips is 'Queen of the Night' (mentioned earlier). I experimented with a pot of them which I moved around the garden to try with different plants.
I was especially taken with the two combinations pictured right - first with the yellow of laburnum flowers which hung low enough to provide a stunning backdrop and second, rather unexpectedly, with the pale blue forget-me-not.
Don't be afraid to try different combinations. Record at flowering time whether you think a particular combination worked or whether you intend to try something different next year.
Sticking with tulips a classic combination is tulips and wallflowers pictured right. Colour wise yellow, orange or red tulips tend to look best with wallflowers. I would avoid the pink or green varieties in this situation, but there are no hard and fast rules.
Another tulip pairing I found works well is tulips with hostas, also pictured right. Although hostas are happy in shade they don't mind a sunnier spot which is preferred by tulips. Although they don't flower at the same time, the hosta leaves do a good job of hiding the tulip leaves after the tulip has flowered and their leaves are past their best and dying down.
If you are a fan of informal gardens and bulbs you will almost certainly want an area of bulbs which have naturalised. All this means is that they are planted informally and left to increase and spread each year creating a beautiful swathe of flowers.
Depending on the species you can opt to naturalise bulbs in grass, in a woodland garden or beneath deciduous shrubs.
It is crucial when you plant bulbs for naturalising that they go in at the recommended depth for the species of bulb because this gives them more chance to establish and grow strongly.
Bulbs will only do well like this if you don't mow or chop the leaves off after flowering - the leaves photosynthesising are what gives the bulb enough energy to flower the following year. This means that if you have bulbs planted in grass you will only be able to start mowing the grass when the bulb's leaves have withered.
Some bulbs, such as snowdrops, are best planted 'in the green' when they have flowered but still have leaves. If you have a friend with lots of snowdrops and you want some of your own to naturalise, you may be able to cadge some when your friend is separating tight clumps of bulbs after flowering.
Extending the Flowering Season
Whichever kind of bulb garden you choose to have you will probably want to have bulbs flowering for as much of the year as possible.
There are two ways to do this. With some varieties of bulb such as daffodils and tulips you can select early mid and late flowering varieties. This won't give you flowers all year but with tulips, for example with careful selection you could have flowers from February to the end of May. You might plant species Tulipa tarda for flowers in late February and March, Tulipa 'Peer Gynt' for April flowers and Tulipa 'Menton' for May flowers.
The other way to have bulbs and corms flowering throughout the year is to plant a wide range of species. So you might start the year with snowdrops, move through spring with wood anemones into summer with gladioli, autumn with nerine and winter with hardy cyclamen. The table below gives some examples of species for each month.
Garden Bulbs all Year
Autumn daffodil (sternbergia)
Pineapple Lily (eucomis)
Glory of the snow (chionodoxa)
Corn lily (ixia)
Kaffir lily (schizostylus)
Dwarf Squill (scila)
Spring snowflake (leucojum)
Tulips (late flowering varieties)
Tiger flower (tigridia)