Bulbs the neighbors won’t recognize
By Sally Cunningham

Spring isn’t just about tulips, daffodils, alliums, and hyacinths. It may look that way when you drive around Western New York next spring, but your yard can come alive in April with flowers that awake envy, if you choose some of the lesser-known bulbs. You may have to scout the best garden centers in October, but several do keep trying to expand the regional bulb palette. Or you may use catalogues. But do try these plants for a new look, and mix them with the tried-and-true. And yes, you can plant bulbs throughout October (the sooner the better) and still have a dependable spring show.

Once you get the bulbs, consider the implications of site; this can help you to avoid gardeners’ remorse when these bulbs do what bulbs do. Successful bulbs multiply, and all bulbs need to grow their leaves—not always a pretty sight—long after the bloom has passed. Put them where their decline can take place gracefully, in private, behind emerging perennials. Spread them lavishly where they can naturalize, in tall grass or a meadow, without somebody mowing off their heads in the rush to cut the lawn. Notice the sunlight available for them in spring (before most trees leaf out), and be sure their needs for light and water are met. Most yards have a spot for the following great, truly easy plants.

Teachers often describe these by alluding to our Jack-in-the-pulpit, but that image hardly evokes the odd look of these woodland plants. (Picture “Jack” all grown up, gone Goth in an enlarged “pulpit,” with a wildly speckled stem.) Later, expect bright orange or red spikes of the fruit. (For much more on this plant’s amazing family, see

Bulb planting tips: In severely cold areas, plant bulbs a bit deeper than the package instructions indicate. A good rule of thumb: Plant bulbs at least 3.5 times as deeply as their height from tip to bottom. Use lots of compost in the hole, and mix in a bulb-boosting or bonemeal type product. After the ground freezes, mulch.
True blue flowers with slender petals and grasslike leaves give this spring bulb a delicate, exotic look. Plant it behind species tulips or dwarf irises. I have also seen beautiful plantings with Angelique tulips and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), as well as a memorable combination with maroon-leaved heuchera. It’s happy in moist, clay-ey soil.

Chionodoxa (Glory-of-the-snow)
It’s tiny (four to six inches) but a sweet, early presence—usually blue, but some white available. Try planting them around hellebores. As with other small bulbs such as grape hyacinths and windflowers, prepare a large area and fling these out there for a natural look; then cover the whole sections with a soil/compost mix.

Time for orchids
As the outdoor gardening season winds down, the Botanical Gardens of Buffalo and Erie County offers a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the delicate hothouse beauty of orchids as they hold their Fall Orchid Show, a collaboration with the Niagara Orchid Society, October 10–11.

In addition to gorgeous displays of orchids put together by local orchid enthusiasts and the garden’s permanent orchid displays, vendors will be selling seedlings, full-grown flowering orchids, and growing supplies. Orchid growing workshops will be given both days, and Orchid Society members will be available to answer questions.
—S. C.
While I see this in most garden centers, I wonder that it still isn’t that evident in front gardens. Perhaps shoppers shirk from the price per bulb ($4 upwards), but that is because it takes big bulbs a few years to grow that big. Be sure to plant deeply enough. Then you’ll have a deer-repelling, impressive plant, orange or yellow, over two feet tall. I think they resemble proud roosters strutting among an entourage of daffodils.

You may know these as Scilla, or English and Spanish bluebells. Spanish bluebells are taller (twenty inches) compared to the English type—some pink and white, as well. Choose a spot under shrubs in a natural setting, or the edge of the yard, where they can spread.

Called Lebanese squill, this is a small, early spring bloomer that naturalizes easily. The most popular one has pale blue, striped flowers. Plant a swath of these, and later say “Ahh ...”

A word about the rest
What’s unusual to some is old-hat to others. You may think this list should have included Galanthus (snowdrops), or the tiny irises and mini-daffodils, or even Ornithogatum (Star of Bethlehem—but oh, how weedy it gets). Dog-toothed violets (Erythronium) are technically spring-planted bulbs, although I think of them in the groundcover category. I could also have expanded upon the many species and cultivars among those already listed. For instance, don’t fail to try the checkered little Fritillaria meleagris if you like odd ducks.

Although all our local garden centers carry bulbs, they may not always have what you need. If you can’t find the bulbs you’re looking for, try:

These reliable, highly-rated mail order sources have terrific sales toward the end of fall. —S. C.
Then there are the underused types of our common bulbs. While I am happy to see that many people have discovered the big purple ball Alliums, I wonder why we don’t see the speckled bellflower types or small yellows—especially because deer hate them. Among tulips, we often fail to use those precious species tulips (short, spreading, some with patterned leaves). And daffodils come in other colors than bright yellow.

Bulbs give all gardeners—no matter how experienced—something new to try every season.

Sally Cunningham, the author of Great Garden Companions, is a certified nursery and landscaping professional, lecturer, television garden advisor, and consultant with Lockwood’s Greenhouses in Hamburg.


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