Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.
Narcissus, in all their golden glory, are one of the earliest signs of spring. Here’s one of my favorite daffodils (Narcissus ‘Tête à Tête’) combined with another very early spring bloomer, Scilla siberica, often called Siberian squills. The yellow and blue blooms really perk up chilly spring weather, especially rainy days like the last few.
In a few weeks, this combination of complementary colors will be repeated with Narcissus ‘Baby Moon’ and grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum ‘Saffier’) just behind this planting. This repeated combination of striking colors gives a visual punch that lasts for weeks when most of the garden is still sleeping.
For maximum impact, plant clumps of bulbs, rather than lonely orphans. My preference is to plant a circular clump of bulbs in three tiny staggered rows. Bigger bulbs are planted in clumps of seven — a row of two, a row of three, a row of two. Smaller bulbs are planted in clumps of ten, with three rows containing three, four, and three bulbs. This particular planting also includes 30 or 40 smaller bulbs surrounding the daffodils. This is the second year for this planting, and they’re filling in nicely, despite some canine rearranging.
When planting bulbs, there are several things to consider. As with any plant, location and soil are critical. Most bulbs need sunny conditions while their leaves persist and well drained soil during dormancy. Spring blooming bulbs are often planted under deciduous trees since the bulb foliage dies back about the time the tree foliage fills in offering the bulbs sun when they need it and tree roots to slurp up summer water the bulbs don’t need during summer dormancy. Spring bulbs aren’t generally big feeders, and mine make do with regular mulching and VERY occasional bonemeal.
Visually, bulb foliage isn’t exciting, and dies back early in the gardening year, leaving a blank spot. Since it’s critical for developing next year’s flowers to leave the foliage until it yellows naturally, plan for disguising the fading foliage and filling in after it dies back. Perennials and annuals are both useful to succeed spring bulbs.
Planting in clumps as described above leaves spots around the clumps for other plants to distract from the fading foliage and fill in. The planting described above has a row of golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) behind each row of bulbs. As this slow growing perennial grass establishes, it will fill in around and over the bulbs and provide gorgeous foliage through the summer and fall. I’m planning to add a row of Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’) this year in front of the daffodils for more foliage contrast with the Hakone grass.
There are plenty of other options for ‘filler’ plants around spring bulbs. Options include hostas, ferns, daylilies, astilbe, and Japanese anemone. It all depends on your fancy and your site. While planning for what will come after spring bulbs, plan accompaniments for the bulbs too. Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are gorgeous with early yellow Narcissus. Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), Viola species like pansies and Johnny Jump Ups, and Primula are wonderful early spring annuals to combine with spring bulbs. Spring bulbs can also be planted in ground covers like Vinca minor.
The biggest problem with spring bulbs is that they need to be planted months before they bloom. The best time for planting many bulbs is mid to late fall after the weather has cooled off. They spend the winter growing roots preparing to burst forth when the weather starts warming. This is the time of year to PLAN for bulbs, but not to PLANT them. I’m already walking around the yard taking notes about where to add or move bulbs for an even better show next spring.
There are literally thousands of Narcissus varieties available. Gardeners around the world have been selecting and breeding for hundreds of years, all across the world. Local box stores and nurseries carry a small selection in the fall when most spring bulbs need to be planted. For a bigger selection, there are a wide variety of bulb catalogs available, with prices for nearly any budget.
Brent and Becky’s Bulbs is a little expensive, but their quality and selection are outstanding. The catalog is ruthlessly organized by officially recognized bulb categories like Narcissus Divisions. It can be quite educational. They’re active daffodil breeders and have authored some excellent books. I order from both their Fall and Spring catalogs fairly regularly.
Van Engelen and John Scheepers are sister companies with Van Engelen’s catalog focusing on wholesale quantities. I often peruse the glossy full color John Scheepers catalog and then order from the Van Engelen’s photo free catalog to get the fairly large quantities of bulbs I like to plant. I’ve ordered from them several times and been very happy with the results.
Clever bulb companies often send out catalogs in spring when bulbs are the biggest thing happening in the garden and encourage customers to order NOW for delivery in the fall. That’s correct timing for planting bulbs, and can make it easier to figure out what spots need to be filled. Just remember all those bulbs have to be planted when they arrive months after ordering!
To wrap up, here are a couple of idiosyncratic lists:
Peggy’s Favorite Daffodils
- Narcissus ‘Tête à Tête’ – a very early bright yellow miniature, rock solid performer and rapid multiplier. Particularly pretty combined with Scilla siberica
- Narcissus ‘Accent’ – a mid season pink cupped daffodil with substantial flower. Not a fast multiplier, but a gorgeous color
- Naricssus jonquilla simplex – a late bright yellow classic with reedy looking foliage and gorgeous tiny yellow flowers.
Other Wonderful Bulbs
- Scilla campanulata – commonly called wood hyacinths, these bloom late spring in white, pink or blue. They multiple rapidly, and seem to grow nearly anywhere: dry sunny, damp shady, you name it. Their biggest drawback is the unattractive fading foliage. I love the blue varieties in the woods combined with bright yellow Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum.)
- Lycoris squamigera – the most amusing common name for these is Naked Ladies. The leaves emerge and die back along with spring bulbs, but the flowers don’t show up till August, hence the common name. Flowers are a large pink trumpet on a two or three foot tall stem. They can be slow to establish, so be patient.
- Ipheion uniflorum – These have a long bloom season for spring bulbs and come in white and pink as well as the more common shades of blue. For the best blues, choose a named variety like Rolf Fiedler or Wisley Blue. They’re durable and nice combined with mid and late season daffodils.