Plant bulbs this fall for bright spring blooms
Call it what you will—jaw-dropping, car-stopping, splendiferous—the sight of spring-flowering bulbs in bloom warms hearts chilled by long Seacoast winters. But growing the likes of daffodils, tulips, Siberian squill, ornamental onions, and crown imperial requires advance planning. Spring-flowering bulbs need fall planting because that is when they produce their roots; they also need extended cold to trigger the chemical process causing them to bloom.
Will your preparation pay off? You bet! Many of these bulbs work well in seaside gardens and are pest-resistant and tough; they benefit from coastal winds and have a waxy coating that protects them from salt. “The reason bulbs grow so sturdy and compact in Holland is because there’s wind all the time,” says Brent Heath, bulb expert, author, and co-owner of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.
Heath describes daffodils, which like many bulbs need sun and good drainage to thrive, as “one of nature’s perfect perennials. They’re mostly yellow, which is the first color the eye separates out of the spectrum,” he says. “That’s why school buses are painted that way.”
Daffodils not only come back year after year but are also deer and rodent proof, a huge benefit for Seacoast gardens. Heath recommends planting for an extended season of bloom, starting with ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ for early flowering. His seedling ‘Golden Echo’, a jonquil with one to five fragrant flowers per stem, is a mid-spring bloomer bred for short, strong stature and long-lasting bloom. ‘Thalia’ is graceful yet sturdy, an heirloom with pure white petals flaring slightly back from the cup. “It is a little more shade and moisture tolerant than other daffodils,” he says of this mid- to late-spring bloomer. To round out the daffodil season, Heath likes ‘Angel Eyes’, a very late spring bloomer with bright white petals and a shallow green-eyed yellow cup edged in orangey red.
Landscape designer Jackie Nooney, owner of Jacquelyn Nooney Landscape Inc. in Eliot, Maine, plants daffodils among perennials such as hostas, peonies, daylilies, and groundcovers to mask their dying leaves. “I like to plant daffodils where they’re not going to be disturbed, since you have to leave the foliage on until it yellows,” she says. According to Heath, leaves should be left untouched—no ties, bows, braids, or cutting—for six to eight weeks so that photosynthesis can occur. This is how a bulb recharges its energy to bloom again the following spring.
Alliums, or ornamental onions, are also pest-resistant bulbs. They bloom in late spring to early summer. For big garden impact, Nooney chooses ‘Globemaster’ allium with its long-lasting, 8-to-10-inch, purple flowerheads. Other attention grabbers include the starry, silvery rose, 10-inch domes of Allium christophii and A. schubertii’s stunning, 10-to-12-inch heads, which look like fancy pinky purple fireworks. Closely related to allium is garlic-scented, self-sowing Nectaroscordum with its dangling, bell-shaped, rose, cream, and green florets that attract hummingbirds and other pollinators. The designer, who planted her nectaroscordum in front of a fothergilla with white bottlebrush spring blooms, lets this bulb stay put and multiply.
Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) is another pick for its showy circlet of hanging red-orange blooms atop a thick three-foot stem. A tuft of twisty green leaves caps the stinky flowers and another tuft grows at the base. “The flower’s so huge, it’s like Disneyland,” she says. “You want to put a cluster where you can appreciate it. Mine is right by my front path. I forget about it, and then every year it surprises me.”
To satisfy her desire for spring color, Nooney uses tulips for annual plantings. “They’re my personal favorites. We’re all so starved for color in spring, and they come in a variety of bold hues and forms,” she says. “I used to plant one solid mass of color, but now I like mixes. I’m always looking for new combinations.” She is enthusiastic about Colorblends mixtures, which include early, middle, and late blooming tulips in various elegant or cheeky combos of red, purple, orange, pink, yellow, white, lavender, or bicolor.
Although some tulips, which Nooney describes as “deer candy,” may come back in areas without deer pressure, the designer finds that in subsequent seasons, the display is not as brilliant as the initial planting. If you would like to grow tulips but have deer and rodent problems, Colorblends suggests planting bulbs in protected areas or close to your house, where deer are less likely to forage.
When it comes to bulbs, the more the merrier. Masses of tulips, daffodils, squill, and other bulbs create more drama than singletons ever could, and special trowels, dibbers, and augers make planting them a breeze. Set bulbs in the ground when nighttime temperatures have been in the low 40s or 50s for a couple of weeks or soil temperatures drop to roughly 55ºF. Soil thermometers are inexpensive and available online and at garden centers and big box stores. On the Seacoast, you can usually start planting in late September.
In general, grow bulbs with pointy ends up; plant them at the depth and spacing indicated on their packaging. Most bulbs prefer elevated beds or soil with excellent drainage and at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight per day. Soil rich in organic matter helps bulbs thrive. Heath recommends adding compost to the planting hole and a top-dressing of compost over the garden each fall to nourish the soil so that they can take in nutrients they need to flourish. Certain bulbs prefer different conditions—for instance quamash (Camassia) needs consistently moist soil in full sun to part shade—so check your plant’s specific requirements before planting. “Find a plant’s happy spot and it will grow well,” Heath says.
Pest-resistant bulbs for Seacoast gardens
Create fabulous bulb displays without drawing deer and rodents to snack on your yard. Colorblends ranks the following spring-flowering bulbs high on beauty and low on pest appeal.
Allium, ornamental onion. Full sun. ‘Globemaster’ produces purple lollipops on sturdy three-foot stems, late spring to early summer.
Camassia, quamash. Blooms late spring in damp, sunny sites. Tall native with blue flowers in loose spikes.
Chionodoxa, glory-of-the-snow. Blooms late winter, early spring. Plant en masse for a starry lavender-blue carpet in spring.
Crocus tommasinianus, tommy. Blooms late winter, early spring. Low growing, pinkish-purple in color, elfin charm.
Daffodil. See Narcissus.
Eranthis, winter aconite. Blooms late winter, early spring. Low growing, yellow buttercup flowers, hugged by green hula-skirt leaves.
Fritillaria, checkered lily, crown imperial. Blooms mid to late spring, depending on variety. Respectively: a wildflower, look for damp shady sites; or tall, bright, and statuesque for dramatic plantings in red, yellow, or white.
Galanthus, snowdrop. Blooms late winter, early spring. Pest proof. The earliest blooming spring bulb with nodding white flowers and strappy leaves.
Hyacinthoides hispanica, Spanish bluebell. Shade tolerant, with porcelain blue, bell-shaped flowers that bloom late in the bulb season. Ideal for naturalizing in broad sweeps beneath trees.
Hyacinthus, hyacinth. Blooms mid spring. Known for its swoon-worthy fragrance, with a singularly chubby shape that glows with saturated color.
Ipheion, starflower. Blooms early to late spring, depending on variety. Spritely star-shaped white or blue flowers that bloom and bloom.
Leucojum, snowflake. Bloom mid to late spring. Pest proof. Thrives in damp soil. Sprays of pendent white bell-shaped flowers that nod high on 18-inch stems.
Muscari, grape hyacinth. Blooms mid to late spring, depending upon variety. Cobalt blue beauties, best planted en masse on their own or as underplantings to daffodils and tulips.
Narcissus, daffodil. Blooms early to late spring, depending upon variety. Pest proof. Durable, prolific bloomers, with yellow or white flowers offset by center cups of yellow, white, orange, or pink.
Ornithogalum, star of Bethlehem. Blooms early to mid spring. Variously, abundant small white or blue starry flowers, often with veining.
Scilla, blue squill. Blooms early spring, to early summer, depending upon variety. Once established, creates a low-growing carpet of electric-blue flowers.