Creating Naturalistic Bulb Designs

I made a late trip out to Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm last fall to buy Leucojum aestivum (Summer Snowflake), but also succumbed to the other beautiful bulbs they still had in the store. I was particularly happy with the tulips I purchased and wished I’d planted more in the ground and in containers. I’m curious how well they will bloom this coming spring. I inadvertently dug some up while planting some new plants in the garden and the bulbs looked healthy and viable so I’m optimistic I’ll have beautiful blooms again next year.

I came across an article titled “Naturalistic Bulb Design” by Bobbie Schwartz, FAPLD, an Ohio-based landscape designer and garden writer. I’ve always planted my bulbs in groupings of five to 10 bulbs and hoped they looked “natural.” However, planting in groupings and large swaths leaves holes in the garden after the bulbs finish blooming. Bobbie suggests we should consider another approach, one advocated by Dutch designer Jacqueline van der Kloet: combining bulbs in a wheelbarrow and tossing the bulbs into the perennial garden, and planting them where they fall. If you have large bulbs and smaller bulbs, mix the large bulbs together, toss and plant, then repeat with the smaller bulbs. According to van der Kloet, this technique assures random patterns that imitate the way bulbs grow in natural habitats.

Apparently, the most crucial factors in perennializing and naturalizing bulbs is excellent drainage and lack of summer watering. According to the article, “in their native habitats, most bulbs are in soil that is wet in the winter and dry in the summer. Therefore, inter-planting bulbs with drought tolerant perennials and grasses will contribute to their longevity.” So I guess we can add spring bulbs to our list of drought tolerant plants. That was news to me.

Bobbie goes on to suggest “naturalistic bulb design is more effective if the bulbs can be planted in a setting where they will be highlighted. One example is a meadow-like grouping under a late foliating tree…Another example is a number of trees or shrubs that can be connected to one another by a meandering stream of bulbs…Quantities of at least 50 to 100 will be needed to create a naturalistic feeling and more would be even better.” That sounds like a lot of bulbs, but I ended up planting more than 100 bulbs in my groupings and it can be done in a few hours.

I tried naturalizing crocus in the lawn, which worked great the first year but the environment was too wet for them to return in great numbers the following year.

In addition to our wonderful, local Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, I’ve heard several gardeners rave about Brent and Becky’s Bulbs out of Virginia. I had the opportunity to meet Brent and Becky at the July Perennial Plant Symposium that was held in Portland. Lovely people.

What’s your bulb planting strategy? Do you have a favorite bulb you’d recommend to other readers? Or a favorite plant combination using bulbs?