Plant spring bulbs now for joyful color next year

Published 1:00 am Saturday, November 12, 2011

Nothing brings more cheer to a garden after the winter than flowering spring bulbs.

Garden author Nellie Neal says Mississippi gardeners are missing the boat if they have not tried to grow some of the lesser-known, smaller bulbs along with spring daffodils and tulips.

Muscari, or grape hyacinths, produce eye-catching spring flowers. The most popular and widely available varieties produce blooms in brilliant shades of cobalt blue that upon close inspection resemble upside-down clusters of grapes. Mail-order sources offer them in white and mauve shades but they just are not as dramatic as the blue.

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The muscari bulbs need to be planted together in groups of at least 10-15 bulbs or they get lost in a landscape. Foliage appears in fall with blooms emerging in spring. Deer seldom bother them in a landscape, the blooms are fragrant, they multiply and return year after year, and are well suited for container plantings with daffodils, tulips, pansies and other cool-weather annuals.

Galanthus, or snowdrops, and leucojum, snowflakes, are members of the amaryllis family and produce small white blooms in early spring. Galanthus blooms are often described as three little milk drops hanging off a stem. Fragrant leucojums appear two to three weeks later and individual blooms resemble tiny bells hanging together along each stem. They multiply freely into clumps that can be divided after a few years, and are generally ignored by deer and rodents.

Many gardeners are familiar with Dutch iris, used in spring florist arrangements, but they may not realize they can be grown at home. I remember vividly the bright blue ones that Hazel Johnston used to grow in her garden on Chambers Street over 30 years ago. They bloomed at the same time as her azaleas, and the effect was quite memorable.

Dutch iris bulbs are available in blue, yellow, white and shades of purple. As with all the other bulbs, they need to be planted in groups for maximum impact, and they make excellent cut flowers. They can come back for a few years if fertilized properly but are not reliable for long-term naturalizing.

The Better Homes and Gardens website,, has some great pictures and information related to growing bulbs.

It recommends combining colors carefully. Two strong colors planted together, like red and yellow or yellow and purple, make the boldest, brightest impression and will attract lots of attention. They recommend planting at least 25 or more of the same color bulbs together for impact.

Combine bulbs in a landscape with spring flowering annuals and perennials, such as Lenten Rose, that will hide the bulb foliage as it ripens and after the blooms have disappeared. Naturalize large masses of daffodils and other bulbs in a meadow setting for delightful spring color. That means no mowing until after their foliage has ripened.

Joy Brabston naturalized thousands of old-fashioned heritage daffodils in the field to the front left of Linden Plantation. Their spring display never fails to delight visitors. Plant smaller bulbs in layers over larger bulbs in the ground and in containers so that as they bloom with the effect of a bouquet of color.

Bulbs need fertile, organically enriched soil with excellent drainage. They are notorious for rotting in soggy soil. At least six hours of sunlight are needed daily, after the leaves are on the trees, for them to replenish the nutrients they need for the next blooming cycle. Daffodils and other bulbs that return from year to year need fall fertilizing with a slow-release bulb booster such as 10-10-20, says Brett Heath, owner of one of the largest bulb retail mail-order companies located in Gloucester, Va.

He also has found that daffodils and other bulbs that naturalize well do better if they are planted at a depth that is three times the height of the bulb. If they are planted in shallower holes, the clumps may get bigger but the bulbs are smaller and have far fewer blooms.

Tulips and hyacinths should be considered annuals in our warm climate and do require a minimum of 45 days of chilling prior to planting. Deer, squirrels, voles and mice love to eat tulips as a tasty treat when food is scarce. Experts suggest intermixing tulips with daffodils, allium (they belong to the onion family) and hyacinths, which naturally deter these critters.

Lining holes with wire mesh prior to planting will discourage burrowing voles, and surrounding bulbs with sharp gravel will ensure that tender-footed pests such as squirrels won’t dig them up. Chicken wire spread over the top of the bulb bed will often deter deer and other diggers, and commercial sprays are also available but often have to be reapplied after a rain.

Miriam Jabour, a Master Gardener and Master Flower Show judge, has been active in the Openwood Plantation Garden Club for over 35 years. Write to her at 1114 Windy Lake Drive, Vicksburg, MS 39183.