Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Planning a Spring Garden in the Middle of Summer

At one point, I used to work at Green Spring Gardens, a horticultural demonstration garden in Fairfax County Virginia. It's a little-known gem of a park that is stuffed full of themed flower gardens showcasing species and varieties that do well in the Northern Virginia area. The gardeners there spent years planning and editing the gardens to include species that were not only atypical, but also thrived and provided beauty throughout the seasons of the year.

I learned that the best time to start planning for your spring garden was well before the bulbs traditionally show up for sale at the local garden center. The gardeners would walk through the gardens in spring, taking notes of what worked and what didn't and what needed more of a particular color where while the spring bulbs were still up. All of the gardeners there had their wish lists finalized and orders placed before mid-July (often, much sooner) in order to secure the best pricing and selection from mail order bulb suppliers.
Photo from a trip to Buschart Garden last spring.
My Bulb-planting Philosophy
I plant bulbs in blocks - intensive drifts which may end up having wide gaps of no bulbs between them at all. Why? Two reasons:

1) First, it's usually more effective to have an intensive block of color in one area than to have a few bulbs here, a few bulbs there all over the yard. It creates a focal point, and it makes your bulb money go further because a random scattering all over the place just gets lost. Besides, in the early spring nothing is up anyway, so the empty spots don't look out of place (and this makes the intensive patches look all the more spectacular).

Planting in drifts creates a big impact. It can also be easier
to manage if you spread the planting over several years. 
2) The second reason is purely practical - planting in intensive drifts makes it easy to spread the planting out over several years. For one, it's much easier to remember what you've already done & where each fall. And for another, it can net deep discounts due to buying in bulk. It's cheaper to buy 50 bulbs of one type than to buy 10 bulbs each of 5 different types. So I like to buy big chunks of a few varieties each year, and then wait until the next year to buy a big chunk of different varieties. This also makes it so that I only have to plant 200-300 bulbs per year rather than 1000, which is less tedious.

Spring bulbs are particularly dangerous tempting purchases for me. I'd argue that you can't have too many. Really. You can have daffodils and hostas in the same location. Bulbs come up before ferns, hostas, asters, fall anemones, daylilies, and many other plants, so you can double plant them. In early spring, the bulbs come up and put on a show. Then as the bulbs start to die down, the other plants come up to cover up the yellowing foliage.

It's also easy to have spring bulbs where you don't have any other plants later in the year - for one, spring bulbs come up before most trees leaf out, so you can safely plant them in both sun and shady areas without having to worry about having the right exposure. The only things you need to worry about are: wildlife (squirrels & deer like to move/eat certain bulbs), shade from buildings, and too much water in the summer (some bulbs don't like wet summer feet - however, trees and other plants often wick up excess moisture before it can rot the bulbs so you don't need to worry).

This year, I'm expecting to receive about 465 bulbs:
Species Tulips are small, but hardy.
Taken at Green Spring Gardens.

  • Narcissus - I'm getting 5 varieties of daffodil this year, including a fragrant type for near the front entrance and some miniature varieties to provide some contrast with the larger selections already in the garden. 
  • Tulipa - I don't normally get a lot of tulips, simply because tulips tend to bloom themselves to death after a few years (if the squirrels don't eat them all first). However, I make an exception for the smaller, species tulips, which are more hardy. This year, I'm getting some T. bakeri 'Lilac Wonder'. I've also gotten 'Tinka' and ' Peppermint Stick' in the past, and I love them. 
  • Anemone blanda 'Blue Shades' - this plant is usually only a few inches tall and blooms about the same time as hyacinth. I plan on pairing the two. 
  • Crocus tommasinianus - I want some more very early spring color, so crocus is what I'm going with. Next year, I may pair it with some early-blooming dwarf iris. 
  • Erythronium 'Pagoda' - this bulb has an usual, delicate silhouette. I plan to plant it near the mayapples.  
  • Galanthus woronwii - like the crocus, I'm counting on some snowdrops to extend the bloom season into late winter. 
  • Hyacinth orientalus 'Delft Blue' - these will go along with the anemone for a block of blue color. They're also very fragrant. 
  • Hyacinthoides and Scilla siberica - these have a similar color and form to hyacinth, but they're more hardy and less expensive.  
  • Muscari comosum 'Plumosum' - this is an unusual heirloom variety which was grown by many Colonial gardeners, including Thomas Jefferson. I'm getting it because I like having the occasional unusual plant to separate my yard from the rest of my neighborhood. 

My family at Buschart Garden. Note how they planted blue
forget-me-nots under these Orange Empress Tulips.
Bulb Suppliers
k.van Bourgondien & sons, inc. - wholesalers. Requires a minimum order of $50 w/ 15% shipping/packing/insurance charge. Based in Va. Beach. Excellent selection & pricing.

McClure & Zimmerman - cheap catalog (no pictures), but good selection. Pricing is not quite as good as Bourgondien, but you can also order smaller quantities & no minimum purchase. They have some stuff that the other people don't (including hardy orchids). They'll give a 10% discount if you order early. Based in WI.

Brent & Becky's Bulbs - based in VA. They have about every bulb you can imagine, including obscure varieties. They're a mom & pop operation, so pricing is not as good as the two above - but they have more stuff. They also send out their catalog earlier than the others - early enough that you can pick more bulbs for next year while this year's bulbs are blooming.


  1. Michelle--I love this post because I always love to read about gardens and gardening. I too love spring bulbs. I have hundreds of daffodils that bloom over a long period of time because I have many varieties. I love that species tulip you are featuring. Is that Peppermint Stick? And, one more thing...I adore Orange Empress Tulip. I need to order more because as you say...they run out after a few years. I read once that you need to almost treat them as an annual. Great Blog!

    1. Yes, you do almost need to treat most tulips as an annual or as a short-lived perennial. Some, like the Darwin hybrids, tend to come back for a few years. The species tulips are the most wild, so they're the ones that are most likely to come back. They're generally a lot smaller because they're not triploid or tetrapoloid. (Humans have two sets of chromosomes and if you double them, bad things happen. But plants will still grow - it's just everything seems to be much larger, including the flowers.) Modern tulips have been bred to be larger, but at the expense of an individual flower's average lifespan.

      I'm pretty sure the one in the photo is Tulipa kaufmanniana 'Ancilla'.

      'Peppermint Stick' is red on the outside and white on the inside. The petals close up at night or when it's rainy, so you end up seeing streaks of both at once.

      'Tinka' and 'Cynthia' are similar to peppermint stick, but they're red and yellow instead of red and white. (Of the two, Tinka has more red.)

      'Ice Stick' is another nice one, which is white on the outside and has a gradation of several colors (including purple) on the outside petals.

      'Lilac Wonder' is light purple with a yellow eye in the center of the flower.

  2. What a great and inspiring post...someone is passionate about gardening, and it shows. I was interested to see the photos from Buschart Gardens. When we lived in the San Juan Islands, Victoria was always a fun boat trip. Buschart is spectacular in summer and fall, but I don't believe I ever saw it in spring as your photos show. I adore the orange and blue flower bed.

    1. Buschart Gardens is beautiful year-round. Some day, I hope to be able to go back to see it in the fall.

      One of the things I noticed about Buschart is that the tulip beds, especially, were almost always underplanted with some sort of cool-season annual. I saw blue forget-me-nots, pink forget-me-nots, and white allysum. I've seen other gardens use violets (Viola) as well as grape hyacinth(Muscari). The nice thing about the cool season annuals is that in many climates, you can plant them in the fall and enjoy them throughout much of the winter (if there's not snow on the ground).

  3. Oh, wow! I have been to Green Spring Garden with the garden club I belonged to when we lived near Warrenton, VA. What an inspiring place! I so miss my extensive flower beds - and spring was always a favorite time of the year because of the progression of bulbs, from snowdrops and crocus through so many different varieties of narcissus and species tulips and ending with naked ladies in late summer. Those were glorious gardening days. Thank you for sharing! Brings back such good blooming memories (:

  4. Wonderful post! Loved reading it and I could tell the passion with which you wrote. If you want to see MY garden in the winter just look at a piece of copy paper...oh.. you might sprinkle some pepper on it for the full affect! When I visited Buschart Gardens I was a bit disappointed. It was in the spring but there weren't as many flowers out as i had expected.


  5. Love that top picture!!!!

    I like bulbs in clusters too. I have some single tulip bulbs around, because I somehow missed them when I transplanted the bulbs.

    Bloggers Guild

  6. What gorgeous gardens and spring plantings! You will be busy preparing for a glorious spring show. Thank you for sharing your photos.

    One of the disadvantages of living in Florida is that most bulbs rot in the wet, shallow soil. I used to enjoy gardening - until I moved here! The heat and weeds are relentless.

    1. That and a lot of bulbs have a winter chilling requirement in order to bloom. Tulips, for example, do not do well in the American Deep South even where the ground isn't soggy.

  7. No I know why my tulips disappeared!

    This has been a very informative post to read. Over the years, I have planted 100s of daffodil bulbs, but they are all spread out and don't put on a very impressive show. Next time I plant daffs I'm going to put them in clusters and I bet I'll be much more satisfied with the results. Thank you for the tips and the beautiful photos!

  8. I think I just died and went to heaven!

    I just love these types of gardens and am so in love with bulb flowers. I tried to get tulips to grow in Florida a million times over, including putting the bulbs in the freezer to simulate frost, but nothing actually bloomed.

    I was lucky enough to visit Cypress Gardens before it was destroyed. It was one magnificent explosion of color. Please say you will post photos of all your new blooms when you have them.

    Great post with a lot of information and COLOR
    Julie and Blu

    1. If you're going to try to force tulip bulbs, the need about 15 weeks at temperatures of 35-45 degrees Farenheight. That means that you need to use the fridge rather than the freezer. It's also possible to buy pre-chilled bulbs.

      BTW, Triumph tulips force better than a lot of other classes.

  9. What a beautiful blog with the flowers, the family and the photos! Great pleasure to read. Gardening is the most creative thing a human can do -- well besides having babies ;)

    1. Wait until Sept. and you'll probably be seeing new baby photos...

  10. Just as I started reading, I thought I saw a familiar garden and yes, the Buschart Garden in Victoria, BC. Love that garden! I think Spring is the best time to visit the garden. What a great post about gardening. My parents and brother would love this. I myself enjoy seeing flowers but am not very good in gardening.

    Adorebynat - Handmade Party Decorations and Stationery

  11. Fantastic post and gorgeous photos. I wish I had a green thumb!
    Lisa :)

  12. Beautiful flowers and great pointers!

  13. Such beautiful flowers and wonderful post. We all need to stop and smell the flowers :)

  14. Love the pictures of the gardens! So beautiful!

  15. Gorgeous gardens. Thank you for the info on bulbs. I keep looking a different places in my yard and say "some day". So far some day hasn't gotten here but when it does I will remember what you said.