Minter: Plant bulbs now for gorgeous spring flowers

With so many types of bulbs available today, the possibilities for combinations are limitless, writes master gardener Brian Minter.

Now that many summer annuals have finished and late-season perennials are bearing color, it’s time to plan and plant for late winter and early spring color.

The only problem is that many new gardeners aren’t quite sure how to create those attractive displays.

Encountering row after row of all different types of bulbs blooming in a variety of colors, at different heights, and at different times can be somewhat overwhelming.

Unless you’re a connoisseur, ignore all those hundreds of choices and stick to the basics. Keep it simple. When I was at Keukenhof Gardens, the world’s best lantern display garden outside Amsterdam, the most effective and memorable displays were the ones with the fewest types of lanterns.

What created these displays were the shapes of the plantings and the use of contrasting colours. The secret to effective displays in your garden is to choose different varieties that bloom at the same time and to choose interesting color combinations.

Let’s start with the oldest snowdrops. They look good on their own, but if you plant them around the beautiful white hellebore (Christmas rose), the effect is really beautiful. It’s hard to find other bulbs that bloom at the same time as snowdrops, so get creative and plant them between the stunning stems of red-twig dogwood trees or around a large, unique piece of driftwood. Black mondo grass is also a pleasant companion.

The cheerful yellow winter aconite often blooms at the same time or follows directly behind the snowdrops. Come to think of it, with snowdrops in the middle, the two might make an interesting combination. These bulbs look dramatic under a gorgeous tree, such as a Japanese maple with weeping lace leaves. I would also like to see it mixed with rich, purple-red, winter-flowering heathers, such as ‘Kramer’s Red’. Golden foliage varieties, such as ‘Mary Helen’ and ‘Evergold’, will also look stunning year after year surrounded by these yellow gems.

The most charming midwinter flower is the miniature iris. These three-inch tall sweets are right at home in a rock garden, and I’ve also seen them used in window boxes in many homes in the Netherlands.

There are many more varieties available today than ever before, but I still think the deep violet Iris reticulata and its fragrant yellow cousin, I. danfordiae, are the best of the best. You should mix the two together for the best effect and place them on the dark side of the larger stones to get a true alpine view.

Once we jump into the lights that will shine in March, all sorts of possibilities will open up for us.

The sleeper in all lamps should be the stunning, but often overlooked, grape hyacinth (muscari). By themselves, these fragrant perennial bulbs look equally good in rock gardens, on top of rock walls, next to steps, or in sweeping drifts of mass plantings almost anywhere.

I’m not quite sure which type I like more, blue or white, but let me assure you that these are probably the longest lasting and most durable bulbs you can get. Try planting them between ground covers, such as ajuga, where the two flowers complement each other.

Muscari also looks great clump planted under early-blooming shrubs and trees, such as yellow forsythia, ‘star’ magnolia, and even early-blooming cherries, such as Prunus autumnalis ‘Accolade’.

In the Keukenhof Gardens they used them extensively as hard borders around hundreds of beds, and the effect was simply stunning. Because muscari bloom longer, they blend beautifully with yellow or white daffodils, such as ‘Flower Carpet’ and the elegant white ‘Thalia’ cultivar.

Almost any of the early or ‘Triumph’ tulips will match the muscari’s blooming season, and almost any color of tulip, mixed with white or blue grape hyacinth, makes a wonderful combination.

With so many types of bulbs available today, the possibilities for fixtures are limitless, but pre-designed packages make it much easier. These combinations work best in garden beds. Containers should be well insulated in case of extreme winter cold.

More and more people are planting bulbs in special trays that look very similar to water lily containers. Simply plant them in good soil and bury the containers in the ground. You can either lift them and place them in containers as soon as the bulbs appear in the spring or better yet, lift them when they have finished blooming to keep your garden looking tidy and let the spent bulbs die back naturally in an out-of-the-ordinary location. The road area will be replanted next fall.

Try some of these cheerful combinations for a great display next spring. They are widely available across the country, and with a little effort now, they will be a valuable addition to your garden.

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