It may be the height of summer but fall bulb catalogs have been filling my mailbox lately, so it is time to take a look at them and craft a plan for some spring magic in the garden.
When living in the Albany area, it almost seems disrespectful not to grow tulips but many local areas have heavy deer pressure so it is best not to plant tulips or “deer candy” as they are often called. There are many other spring bulb choices that do not appeal to Bambi but do offer early nectar choices for bees and other pollinators just emerging to forage.
Part of the magic of spring is the greening of the landscape and the early flower color that appears after the long, gray winter. Tulips and daffodils are the icons of the spring garden but many of the smaller bulbs bloom earlier and offer a colorful segue into spring and a complement to the familiar daffodils and tulips; many are also deer-resistant.
Beyond tulips and daffodils
Starting in late winter, often with snow still on the ground, are the snowdrops* (Galanthus nivalis). A real trooper, this little bulb will joyfully spread as the years go by. Five inches in height and pure white, the star-shaped blooms shine in the spring sunshine. Also very early to bloom are the winter aconites* (Eranthis), sometimes called winter’s wolf’s bane. A true harbinger of spring, this three-inch flower is cup-shaped and bright yellow. Crocus are often thought of as the early bloomers but one variety, Crocus Tommasinianus*, is exceptionally early to flower and deer-resistant.
Blue squill* (Scillia siberica) is a great choice for naturalizing beneath trees, perhaps with an early daffodil such as the petite tete-a-tete*. Six inches tall and very blue, the squill flower spikes bear numerous star-shaped blooms. Also early is glory of the snow* (Chionodoxa luciliae) whose open star-shaped flowers are blue with whitish centers. Trout lily (Erythronium) makes its home in woodland settings and, at 10 inches tall, they resemble miniature turks cap lilies. Spring snowflakes* (Leucojum aestivum) prefers a moist soil and thrives along river banks and damp meadows. One of the tallest of the early bulbs at 18 inches, the flowers look like lily-of-the valley with white bells along arching stems.
Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) is a more common spring bulb that is often planted to complement mid-season tulips. Like tiny flower soldiers, these deep purple blooms resemble mini-hyacinths. At six inches tall, these flowers form a carpet beneath the taller tulips. The very tall camassia* (Camassia leichtlini) is most effective when densely planted in a border. The blooms are spikes with flowers opening from the mid-section upwards like blue stars. Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica) is an underused bulb that looks like a grape hyacinth on steroids. Tall (16 inches) and stately, this bulb produces spikes of porcelain bluebells. Bluebells are very happy to naturalize under shade trees and, in fact, will tolerate quite a bit of shade.
Finding and planting
Finding these more unusual bulbs is a bit of a challenge but mail order sources make it relatively easy. Order early for the best selection and bulbs will be shipped at the correct planting time for our area, which is from mid-September through mid-November. Planting depth is according to bulb size with the larger bulbs planted deeper than the smaller bulbs. Planting instructions should accompany the bulbs. Fertilize at the time of planting with a specialty bulb fertilizer and in future years by broadcasting bulb fertilizer or 5-10-5 over the beds in late winter and you will be rewarded with spring magic year after year.
*indicates bulb is deer-resistant Sources: www.colorblends.com www.dutchgardens.com www.highcountrygardens.com www.whiteflowerfarm.com
Susan Pezzolla, Master Gardener Coordinator, Horticulture Educator. Cornell University Cooperative Extension. 24 Martin Road, Voorheesville, NY.