The Self-Taught Gardener: The Gift of Bulbs

Bulbs are usually the last plants (after trees, perennials and shrubs) to be added to a garden because, like ferns, they are so good at filling in the remaining empty spaces within a bed or border.

An unexpected gift of bulbs from a few houseguests (fall seems to be a great time for weekend guests with fall foliage at its peak) has given me a new task in the garden, just as I was finishing the cutback of plants that I take down prior to the season’s end. (Cutting back and removing the foliage of peonies and iris helps to keep them from overwintering pests and diseases, although I leave up the seed heads of other plants for winter structure and for the birds). I was not planning on planting any bulbs this season, given that I am still figuring out my overall plan for the garden. Bulbs are usually the last plants (after trees, perennials and shrubs) to be added to a garden because, like ferns, they are so good at filling in the remaining empty spaces within a bed or border.

Colorful combinations of tulips can be added to garden beds and grown as annuals, to enjoy in the garden and or use for cutting. They can simply be pulled out when they finish flowering and replaced with summer vegetable crops.
Colorful combinations of tulips can be added to garden beds and grown as annuals, to enjoy in the garden and or use for cutting. They can simply be pulled out when they finish flowering and replaced with summer vegetable crops.

But no gardener passes up a gifted bulb. Many years ago, I came home in late October from a two-month trip to Japan to find that the Netherland Bulb Grower’s Association had sent thousands of pink and orange-cupped narcissi to my old house in Connecticut to experiment with in the border (at the time, I had an even stronger disdain for the color yellow, which the bulbs growers kindly took into consideration in making their selections), and I spent the next few weeks digging in the cold earth and placing the bulbs in drifts along the woodland edge at the front of the property where they continue to thrive and prosper for the new owners. At the time I favored long sweeping Jekyllian drifts (inspired by the planting style of British garden designer Gertrude Jekyll) that set each daffodil variety off from the next. This is a look that could be even more effective with jewel-toned tulips, although my preference for tulips was to use them in mixes (my favorite being a combination of ‘Orange Emperor’ and purple ‘Queen of the Night’) and placing them in the raised beds of my vegetable garden. Because tulip bulbs often weaken and their flowering diminishes after a year or two, I would use them as annuals or cut flowers and replace them with a new color scheme each year. By selecting early-blooming varieties, I could plant them in the vegetable border and take them out in time to plant tomatoes, green beans, and cucumbers. To be surrounded by them made the time spent prepping the vegetable garden in early spring more fun.

A trip to the Keuekenhof in the Netherlands is like visiting Oz. Flowers are planted in huge Technicolor swaths that seem like they belong in a fairy tale or an MGM movie.
A trip to the Keuekenhof in the Netherlands is like visiting Oz. Flowers are planted in huge Technicolor swaths that seem like they belong in a fairy tale or an MGM movie.

 

But my new garden in the Berkshires seems to warrant a new approach to using bulbs. Jekyllian drifts seem too formal and sweeping, although there may be a place for some such dramatic planting outside the kitchen window. Such plantings remind me of trips to the Keukenhof in the Netherlands, where millions of bulbs are planted out for display each year by bulb growers as part of an exhibition that has been going on for decades. The effect is like a trip to Oz. It’s wonderful, but a bit off the mark as an approach for my more naturalistic garden.

Garden designer Jacquelyn van der Kloet uses bulbs randomly and casually to connect together perennial plantings and to give these areas a boost of early season color.
Garden designer Jacqueline van der Kloet uses bulbs randomly and casually to connect together perennial plantings and to give these areas a boost of early season color.

On one visit to the Keukenhof, I had the pleasure of meeting the garden designer Jacqueline van der Kloet, who works with Piet Oudulf on many of his projects. By using bulbs – small species tulips and squill, and snowdrops and crocuses — singly and randomly within beds and borders, amongst cranesbills and emerging perennials, she was able to create an early season meadow of sorts that exhibited a verve and an energy that was nothing short of delightful. The conventional wisdom at the time was to cluster bulbs or to plant them in “bouquets,” as my dear friend Henriette Suhr would call them when she positioned 15 to 20 tulips, often bicolored varieties with colorful flares, in small circles at Rocky Hills, her garden in Westchester County. And while this effect was dramatic and added structure to the border, a different sense of playfulness emerges from the flowery lawns and borders planted by Jacquelyn at Keukenhof and at the flowery lawn at the Pool Garden at Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania, calling to mind illustrations of the meadowy plantings of some medieval flower gardens that I remember from my garden history classes at the New York Botanical Garden.

My dear friend Henriette Suhr likened her clusters of tulips at Rocky Hills to the planting of bouquets throughout the border.
My dear friend Henriette Suhr likened her clusters of tulips at Rocky Hills to the planting of bouquets throughout the border.

Jimi Blake, the Irish gardener extraordinaire, uses a combination of bouquets and singletons in his garden to glorious effect. The clusters add bursts of color and form, while the individually planted bulbs work like fireworks in the border and often serve to unify the landscape and to connect various garden areas together. Given the current state of flux of my garden, I think it is best for me to add the bulbs I was gifted in a looser style and then to add some bouquets in the years ahead to fill in and energize areas of the planting that are in need of a spring push. So as I add my alliums, tulips, and fritillaria into the garden this season, I will also dream of a time when I am ready to go whole hog and add some bouquets and drifts of daffodils and tulips where they are needed. This act of dreaming and thinking of the future is what the fall planting of bulbs is all about, whether it is about what’s at hand for planting and will come up next year, or what will be added in the years to come.

Jimi Blake uses bulbs both in clusters in his borders and as singletons throughout the garden.
Jimi Blake uses bulbs both in clusters in his borders and as singletons throughout the garden.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

2 thoughts on “The Self-Taught Gardener: The Gift of Bulbs

  • Lee, I must comment on the springtime bulb pics. They look like what Disney Theme Parks
    display as opposed to the beautiful delicacy of springtime woodlands. Expensive, needing replanting
    and messy after bloom, there are much better solutions.
    Camassia, May apple, etc offer more variety and natives colonize and invite surprise in spring.
    Have a few bulbs if you must but let’s get back to what our own natives have to offer.
    I am not a purist, I have lilacs and leftovers from the last owner but do not see the bulb plantings as
    attractive, they are also short lived where natives last for months.

    • I love the bulbs of camassia and grew them along the stream beds of my old garden where they were quite happy. However, I do not consider them to be native, as their distribution is not from this region but rather from the northwestern corner of the United States and western Canada. alongside the pink dogtooth lilies of the Pacific Northwest, which I have also grown. But while I love such plants as well as mayapples and other early blooming natives, I also have a longstanding connection to snowdrops and species tulips that I enjoy seeing in my garden and I see no reason not to integrate both, especially given that I have sandy soil that allows the daffodils to thrive and naturalize, but realize we all have our own preferences for our gardens.

      The photos of mass drifts were not meant to inspire, but to show how these plants have been approached throughout time, although an occasional bouquet of tulips will always exist in my garden (as well as flowers for cutting in my vegetable beds), partly as a way to remember and honor my departed friend, Henriette Suhr.

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