Spring-Flowering Bulbs

After the long, grey days of winter, gardeners are always hungry for signs of spring. In coastal B.C., many spring bulbs start to bloom well before the official March spring solstice, while others carry on in succession through April and May. In the Interior of the province and further north, the length of the spring season is much more condensed. The Okanagan, for example, sees springtime around mid-April, while way up north all bulbs tend to flower come May.

For the most successful display, first and foremost keep in mind that all bulbs require well-drained soil with good nutrition. This explains why Holland is so high in the production of bulbs for the world – that sandy, well-drained reclaimed soil provides ideal growing conditions. Secondly, I really believe that all bulbs like to be planted once and left in the ground forever. The lifting and storing of bulbs annually leads to great losses, as bulbs are often lifted before the leaves have died back naturally. This causes premature dehydration that can result in dead bulbs or weakened ones capable of producing only foliage the following year. Try to plant all bulbs much deeper than the recommended depth, and certainly at least deeper than the length of your trowel blade. This way you will never unnecessarily disturb them when planting summer annuals or spring bedding plants such as forget-me-nots or pansies. I base my planting-depth advice on my experience during a collecting trip I once took in Greece where we found Tulipa bakeri and collected it for a herbarium specimen. Well, let me tell you, we dug and dug with our little hand trowel through the rockiest soil you could imagine and went down 30 centimetres before we located the bulb!

One last trick is to make sure you feed your bulbs every spring as soon as they start to show flower buds. This will give the fertilizer time to work on the active foliage growth that takes place for six to eight weeks after the bulbs have finished flowering. It is during this time that they build up their nutrition and ability to produce blooms the following year. On the larger bulbs, such as daffodils and tulips, remove old flowerheads as they fade. All the leaves should be left intact to die back naturally. Don’t cut them back or tie them in knots.

The type of fertilizer to use will depend on when you use it. If you prefer a more traditional granular fertilizer (my favourite being good old 6-8-6), it should be sprinkled amongst the emerging bulb foliage as soon as it pops through the surface of the soil. Use a handful per square metre. This will give the fertilizer time to break down and become active when it is needed. If you forget and time is of the essence, then I would recommend a shot of diluted, well-balanced liquid fertilizer right at flowering time.

For the very earliest of the bulbs, consider snowdrops of Galanthus nivalis, or the many crocus species such as Crocus vernus and Crocus chrysanthus ‘E. A. Bowles,’ along with Scilla siberica. All of these lend themselves perfectly to what the Brits refer to as “naturalizing” – which simply means planting them in your lawn, or in great drifts under shrubs and trees. There are still a few older homes in Vancouver where crocuses have been growing in the lawn for years and are so happy there that they have seeded themselves, resulting in a magical sea of soft purple during the rare sunny days of February.

The key to naturalizing is to purchase as many bulbs of one kind as you can afford and plant them in large natural-looking drifts. With smaller bulbs, plant them in clumps of threes or fives. As an apprentice in the U.K., I was taught to walk onto the lawn and gently toss handfuls of bulbs over my shoulder, then to plant them just where they landed (how British!). Digging into a lawn with something as small as a hand trowel is almost impossible, and those circular, hollow bulb planters only work if they have a long handle and you’ve got light, sandy soil – in most cases, it is easiest just to cut out a square of sod and plant the bulbs in the bare earth with a trowel, adding a small handful of bone meal to the square before replacing the sod.

There are many species crocus to choose from. They can, of course, be ordered from catalogues or purchased at your local garden centre. If you prefer the latter, go as early as you can for the best selection.

Snowdrops do fairly well from new bulbs. However, if you have a friend who has lots in their garden, ask if you can have some and transplant right after they have flowered while there’s still plenty of foliage on them. For some reason or other, this only works favourably with snowdrops. Scilla siberica is a most amenable little bulb that takes off with vigour, rewarding us with bright-blue flowers from late February to early March.

Other smaller bulbs deserving of naturalized garden space include Fritillaria meleagris, known as the European snakeshead lily or checkered lily because of the intricate square patterns on its dark purple to white nodding flowers, carried on airy stems about 30 centimetres in height. Anemone blanda, also from Europe, forms dense clumps of pale blue to pinkish blooms around 15 centimetres in height with each stem displaying intricately lobed basal leaves that surround the blooms like a skirt. Iris reticulata looks exactly like miniature forms of the florist’s Dutch iris, ranging in colour from blue to deeper mauve. All three of these are best planted under deciduous shrubs or towards the edge of a planting of rhododendrons where they will get plenty of light. I once saw an amazing planting where Iris reticulata was situated among the winter-flowering heather Erica carnea ‘Springwood Pink’ – it was gorgeous!

Of course, one can’t really write about bulbs without mentioning tulips and daffodils. If you ever get a chance to visit Holland in the spring, take advantage of it, as the bulb fields look like a spectacular patchwork quilt and are unforgettable. And, of course, a visit to the world-famous Keukenhof Garden will whet your appetite forever for every spring bulb it is possible to grow in a garden. If I only had room for a few tulips, the one I would grow is a species Tulipa linifolia, which is incredibly hardy. It is very short – only about 15 centimetres in height – with red flowers and the narrow foliage from which it derives its name. It is ideal for growing in patio pots and rock gardens. The same again goes for daffodils – there are so many to consider, but were I forced to choose only one, it would be ‘February Gold,’ which always blooms late February to early March, depending on the warmth of the season or the region. The flowers are a little different from regular daffodils in that the petals surrounding the corolla tend to turn backwards, giving this harbinger of spring much charm.

Daffodils seem to have the longest garden life of all bulbs. Those of you who have lived in Vancouver for a number of years will remember the wonderful naturalized drifts of daffodils all along the causeway through Stanley Park. Daffodils are versatile in that they may be naturalized or planted in the flower border. There are so many wonderful hybrids to choose from, including the newer pink ones. When I was 13, I remember being very excited when I grew ‘Mrs. Backhouse,’ which to my knowledge was one of the first pinks. In the Lower Mainland, there is a marvelous opportunity every mid-April to attend the three-day Bradner Daffodil Show. All of the latest varieties are in bloom and on display. With some of the local producers you can order bulbs right there for delivery the following fall. Tulips, on the other hand, seem to have a shorter garden life unless they are the old-fashioned Darwin hybrids, which survive in cottage-type gardens for several years.

Whatever you decide, do plant lots of bulbs in your garden and enjoy the delightful show next spring.

David Tarrant of the UBC Botanical Garden is a well-known gardening expert, author, and host of
Canadian Gardener on CBC television. For more information about David’s garden-related activities, visit his website at www.davidtarrant.com