Carpet a Woodland in Bulbs
December 2000, issue number 76, of "Fine Gardening Magazine"

Text Copyright  © 2001 Judy Glattstein. All rights reserved.
Photograph Copyright  © 2000 Steve Silk. All rights reserved.

Daffodils

Gardeners, I've decided, need as much nurturing care when relocating as their plants require when transplanted. So it was for me when my husband and I moved from our home and garden of 20 years in Connecticut to nine sloping, wooded, unimproved acres in western New Jersey near the Delaware River. I moved as many plants as possible from the old garden, and I also took the old garden's name, Bellewood, for our new home. The woods - a mixed lot of northern red oak, tulip poplar, swamp maples - are about 60 years old, the soil isn't great, and deer wander through looking to see what's on today's menu. These considerations have, as you might expect, strong influence on my selection of plants.

We moved in the fall, and, sorely missing my old garden, I was greatly concerned about my first spring at the new place. It was crucial that there be something to welcome me in addition to multiflora roses, garlic mustard and Japanese honeysuckle. So I decided to plant bulbs, lots of them. Bulbs are a particular passion of mine. They are easy to handle, hold better than fibrous-rooted perennials if there's an interval between purchase and planting, and are great whether you are planting in tens on a small site or by the thousands on a large one. In the four years we've been here I've planted more than 22,000 bulbs, not counting those I moved from Connecticut. I'm fortunate that as a garden consultant I can buy wholesale. That first summer I ordered 3,500 bulbs direct from a grower in Holland.

The bulbs I selected for the woodland were shade tolerant (no tulips), deer-resistant (again, no tulips), and, at a minimum, perennial. Those that reseed or multiply by offsets are especially useful on larger properties, though the same characteristics can be a problem on smaller sites.

I wasn't looking so much for bulbs that flower together as for bulbs that flower in sequence, to extend the display. Now, my spring begins with the first flowers at end of February and continues through to late May.

Paths form the skeleton for a planting design

The first step, of course, was to figure out where the paths in the woods would be, which would also locate planting areas. I walked the property again and again to figure out the lay of the land. Where was it comfortable to walk? Where was it awkward? Were there any particularly nice views? What could I see from the house? Once I had this settled, I indicated paths by the simple expedient of hacking out brush and raking a pathway clear.

Adjacent to these paths, I planted little bulbs such as snake's Guinea hen flower, (Fritillaria meleagris), and Crocus tommasinianus by the thousand in drifts that undulate from wide to narrow. That's not to suggest that all thousand are planted in one continuous ribbon; rather, they're in large groupss with a hiatus before reoccurring. I planted snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) both near paths and spreading out into the woods, and large bulbs, such as the various daffodils (Narcissus cvs.) both near paths and at a distance.

Choose low maintenance bulbs and plant in drifts

Daffodils, especially those in the Cyclamineus and Poeticus divisions, are excellent for reduced maintenance plantings, as evidenced by these types of daffodils still flowering in abandoned gardens. Yellow flowers are good for drifts seen at a distance, whereas white flowers are better for groupings viewed close-up. I planted Poeticus cultivars in groups of 25 on either side of the farm path up into the woods.

I planted each group in a tapered drift, with the long dimension perpendicular to the path. The exact shape is imprecise, as tree roots often get in the way. I feel having the larger dimension at right angles to the path gives a stronger visual effect both when sauntering up the path at bloom time and when viewed from a distance. The daffodils are spaced about 4 to 6 inches apart. That's closer than books recommend, but I wanted a full appearance the first spring. They're planted with approximately 6 inches of soil over the top of each bulb.

Small bulbs, like grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum), I planted proportionately closer, and shallower. If my soil were light and sandy I'd plant more deeply, and if I were planting where it is heavier, with more clay, I'd plant more shallowly.

As mine is a large property, I'm using bulbs in painterly sweeps. I plant small bulbs such as snowdrops, crocus, and Siberian squills (Scilla sibirica) 1,000 at a time, in groups of at least 50, often 100. To create the impression that these are natural to the site, spreading and increasing on their own, I plant the center of a group closer together, those along the edges wider apart, and perhaps a small group of five or more just of the edge at a couple of places. Since space is not an issue, I don't layer bulbs in the planting hole. The closest I've come is to plants groups of Narcissus 'Rip Van Winkle' a tousled little daffodil with double yellow flowers like a hippie dandelion, in swatches of intense blue glory of the snow (Chionodoxa lucilliae). The two are still not layered in the same hole, but rather planted side by side.

Bulbs go in quicker than you'd think

My favorite planting tool is an 8-pound mattock with a broad blade at one side of the head and a pick on the other. I rake the leaves aside, dig over the site with the mattock, and add compost and 5-10-10 granular fertilizer to the soil. Then down on my knees I go with a bucket of bulbs and a Dutch bulb planter. Raking the area smooth and spreading autumn leaves back over the site completes the job. For each grouping of bulbs for example 200 daffodils and 500 grape hyacinths it takes about two hours to prepare the site, plant the bulbs, and mulch.

If we weren't on a well, and if the planting areas were not so far from a spigot, I'd finish with a thorough soaking. But in the woods I'm dependent on natural irrigation, I try to time planting to synchronize with a good rain.

Daffodils are a woodland favorite

After several years of planting there are now 1,250 Poeticus daffodils in the woods, including the cultivars 'Actaea', 'Cantabile', and 'Felindre'. I have them interplanted with periwinkle (Vinca minor). These are somewhat dry woods, and the periwinkle adapts well to such conditions. We built a deck set off to the side of the path, part way down the slope. It provides both a destination when walking by the daffodils, and a viewing platform into the woods.

One fall I planted 1,000 'Trevithian' daffodils and 3,000 grape hyacinths across the drainage creek from the viewing deck in groups of 200 daffodils and 500 to 750 grape hyacinths. They are massed in irregular, side-by-side bands, 10 to 20 grape hyacinths wide and 5 to 10 daffodils wide.

A daffodil belonging to the Jonquilla division, 'Trevithian' is quite fragrant, a good increaser, and a cheerful sunny yellow. In combination with the smoky blue of grape hyacinth, the colors sing.

Other favorite daffodils are 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation', an extremely early flowering yellow Trumpet cultivar; 'Beersheba', a white Trumpet cultivar; and 'Thalia', a white N. triandrus cultivar.

Since we have lots of room, Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanicus), which increases freely by seed and offsets, is a welcome delight. Its blue bells are charming in May. These have been such a pleasure that I've added more. I like the way their soft blue flowers look across the drainage creek, spreading among ferns and spilling down the bank. I planted them in groups of 25 or more, along with some smaller colonies of 5 to 10, suggesting again that these the result of natural increase from an older planting. One of the most difficult adjustments I had to make in the new place was the lack of natural increase that is found in an established garden. However, in only four years the Spanish bluebell bulbs are beginning to settle in, with wispy grass-like shoots of seedling bulbs indicating they are making themselves at home. Be warned: The bulbs pull themselves deeply into the ground, are difficult to evict.

Little bulbs bloom from winter into spring

A plethora of little bulbs is superb from late February or early March into early May. I've planted snowdrops galore, using masses of the common Galanthus nivalis and its sturdier counterpart, G. elwesii. A less common species, which has proven to be a good increaser, is the apple-green-leaved G. ikariae. Not that the flowers are that different, but if you're a galathophile you want them all.

Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) came to me years ago as a gift from a friend in Connecticut who found it growing on the property she'd purchased. The original handful of bulbs has increased freely. I made sure to take as many as I could find when we moved. Tucked in near the drainage creek that runs through the property - spring and summer snowflakes like moisture, even when dormant - they have begun to increase.

The third of my earliest spring charmers is winter aconite (Eranthis hiemalis). Its yellow flowers are a bright grace note to the spring woods. I planted 1,000 in the expectation that a couple hundred would survive and flower the next spring. Winter aconites are small tubers that tend to desiccate and die in the process of drying, shipping, and waiting for sale and planting. Though I obtain them as early as possible, soak the tubers overnight in damp peat moss, and plant promptly, only a quarter survive. Those winter aconites that do grow and flower produce ample seed for natural increase. I had good-size drifts in Connecticut and hope, in time, to have them again. The snowdrops, snowflakes, and winter aconite are followed by a couple of species of Scilla and Chionodoxa, and by grape hyacinths.

Two other little bulbs that I treasure are Guinea hen flower(Fritillaria meleagris) and the only shade-tolerant crocus of which I'm aware, Crocus tommasiniannus. I like the sturdy checkered bells of Guinea hen flower, one or two to a graceful 9-inch tall stem. Their somber plum-purple and grayish white tessellation is charming when paired with pink to plum flowered Lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis).

There are always a few white flowered Guinea hen flowers, and I move these in bloom to group them together. In bloom or just after is a great time to rearrange spring bulbs. The British say they're moving them "in the green" and, as long as you handle them as you would any other actively growing perennial (out of the ground as briefly as possible and water well in their new site) they do just fine. Besides, have you ever tried to find dormant bulbs? Takes on the aspect of a blindfolded search.

The small smoky purple flowers of the little crocus are eaten by deer, the only bulb in my woods that is. However the corms multiply freely by offsets, and flowers produce seed even after they're nibbled off (the ovary is subterranean and capable of seed production as long as the flower's been pollinated) so the crocus is increasing regardless. Rather than the straight species I have planted C. tommasinianus 'Taplow Ruby' and 'Whitwell Purple', a couple of cultivars with stronger color. In time, I expect there will be more variation from the seedlings.

I have also planted some other bulbs in small quantities. Corydalis solida (actually a tuber, not a bulbs, but sold in many bulb catalogs) has ferny leaves and soft purple-pink flowers. Though only a few inches high, it increases freely and makes a charming display before vanishing in May. Fritillaria verticillata is an Asian species I moved with me. It has green flowers with only a hint of checkering, and the most charming curl to its upper leaves that remind me of an illustration in a medieval manuscript. I have overplanted this with our native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens).

Perennial partners for woodland bulbs

Bulbs are like good houseguests. They appear, they bloom, and they depart in a timely manner. That means they need to be planted with partners who will complement them while in bloom and disguise the bulbs' absence when they are dormant. I look for sturdy perennials suitable for dry shade that are unpalatable to foraging animals and inexpensive enough to plant in a group. For the scale on which I garden isolated individuals are not as effective as planting of 10 or more. I moved literally bushels of hellebores from Connecticut, including Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) and green-flowered H. viride. I like Geranium macrorrhizum in any of its forms: violet-pink 'Ingwersen', deeper magenta 'Czakor', and 'Spessart' with its white flowers and pink calyx and stamens. Mrs. Robb's bonnet (Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae) adds evergreen foliage to the woodland. Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla) has excellent forget-me-not flowers and bold heart-shaped leaves, quite effective when paired with ferns.

I especially like Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum') for its soft gray-silver fronds. Lungworts (Pulmonaria spp. And cvs.) in all their variety blotched, spotted, marked with silver - also work well in my dry shade. They're reseeding too. I even planted yellow dead nettle, Lamiastrum gabdoleon, which spreads at a bounding gallop. It is exceptional with daffodils, and elegant with the handful of white-flowered bear's allium (Allium ursinium) I brought back from Holland.

I'm settling in, sending down my roots. This work-in-progress has moments when it feels like a garden. And there's a real feeling of accomplishment when the bulbs are in bloom at BelleWood.

Plant bulbs that flower in sequence to extend the season

Bloom times are approximate in my USDA Hardiness Zone 6 garden. Though the sequence will generally be the same from year to year, exact bloom times will vary depending upon your location and weather conditions.

February
Snowdrops, Galanthus spp.
Spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum
Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis

March
Crocus tommasinianus
Snowdrops, Galanthus spp.
Spring snowflake, Leucojum vernum
Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis
Narcissus 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation'

April
Corydalis solida
Fritillaria thunbergii
Glory of the snow, Chionodoxa spp.
Grape hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum
Siberian squill, Scilla sibirica
Narcissus 'Beersheba'
Narcissus 'Dove Wings'
Narcissus 'Rip Van Winkle'
Narcissus 'Trevithian'

May
Narcissus 'Actaea'
Narcissus 'Thalia'
Guinea hen flower, Fritillaria meleagris
Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hispanicus

Back to Top