Spring-Bulb Design Primer - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Plants & Gardens Blog

Spring-Bulb Design Primer

The sheer exuberance of spring-flowering bulbs is a delight to our winter-weary, color-starved eyes. Their flowers burst forth from late January to June in a full range of hues—blue, purple, pink, red, orange, yellow, white, and green. In my own garden in Virginia, I anticipate the earliest bulbs with the same impatience that I await the return of the robins and the catkins on the willows. Just after the winter solstice, I search for the first green noses of the plants that will soon flaunt their flowers in the face of winter's chill breezes. In mid-January clumps of white snowdrops (Galanthus) pop out of the ground, usually beating out the crocuses and cyclamens by a week or two. By mid-February, the first daffodils (Narcissus) add their cheery yellow to the awakening garden.

When spring finally arrives, early daffodils are past their prime, but anemones, species tulips, starflowers (Ipheion), late daffodils, and Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), as well as native bulbs like trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) and jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema), rise to take their place. In early May tulips steal the show. As spring wanes, there are still plenty of bulbs to come. Late tulips, camassias, ornamental onions (Allium), Dutch iris hybrids, and foxtail lilies (Eremurus) carry the garden into early summer.

Spring bulbs have been garden mainstays since colonial times. The clipped box parterre gardens of colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, featured bulbs to add color and fragrance to the spring season, as did early cottage dooryards in New England. The most exhilarating bulb planting I have ever seen is the display along the lime walk in the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. In April, this garden is in full glory with thousands of different bulbs blooming in unison. Sweeps of tulips, hyacinths, and late daffodils emerge among clumps of trout lilies, fritillaries, and grape hyacinths (Muscari), all above a tightly woven carpet of starflowers, fume root (Corydalis), and anemones in shades of blue, pink, and white. The garden is so chock-full of bulbs, you couldn't squeeze in another one with a shoehorn. Though most of us cannot duplicate such splendor, we can make a statement if we plant even a dozen bulbs.

Context and Contrast

Too often flowering bulbs are lined up in front of a wall or hedge in single file, as if they were doomed rebels facing a firing squad. Instead of ostracizing your bulbs, let them mingle with perennials, ferns, grasses, and shrubs. The synergistic effect will knock your socks off, something a lonely cluster of red and yellow tulips left to bloom and fade alone at the base of a mailbox or lamppost will never achieve. Attractive when viewed against a backdrop of complementary foliage and flowers, bulbs fit into every garden situation, from containers and formal bedding schemes to mixed borders, rock gardens, meadows, and rambling woodland walks.

Place drifts or scattered clusters between clumps of perennials or use bulbs to skirt the bases of shrubs. The foliage of emerging perennials such as phlox, daylilies (Hemerocallis), peonies (Paeonia), and catmints (Nepeta) will hide the declining leaves of daffodils and tulips that otherwise look tatty until early summer. At the front of a bed it's best to use dwarf bulbs, such as European wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) or striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides) as well as species forms of tulips and daffodils, which grow into much smaller plants than their hybrid cousins. All have small leaves that die away discreetly, so there's no untidy foliage to detract from the garden. Clustering at least a dozen of one kind is usually preferable to dotting bulbs throughout a bed haphazardly.

Pair the spiky, finely textured foliage common to most bulbs with medium and boldly textured plants as well as prostrate and rounded forms. Some classic plant pairings include snowdrops (Galanthus) dotted among clumps of hellebores, Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) with white daffodils, and pale yellow tulips with creamy primroses (Primula). The flowers of some bulbs like trumpet daffodils and fritillaries are large, even though the foliage is fine, so you may need both small- and large-leafed plants for balance.

Taller daffodils and tulips seem to float above medium-textured leaves. Contrast the finely textured but bold heads of ornamental onions with large, bold flowers such as peonies. Set off by groundcovers, sedges, grasses, emerging perennials, ferns, and shrubs, your bulbs will look beautiful. And once the spring bloomers vanish below ground in early summer, herbaceous plants and shrubs become the focus of the garden.

Color Matters

Though an informal pastiche of color is delightful in the early-spring garden, by carefully considering bulb bloom times and flower colors you can create subtle harmony or dramatic contrast and enhance the overall color scheme of your garden. If you want a jolt of color to jumpstart spring, plant bulbs that emerge very early. Snowdrops are among the first bulb flowers to open, anytime between late January and April, depending on where you live. If you place them with dark-flowered hellebores that open at about the same time you will accentuate the contrast between the two colors.

Use yellow winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) under early-flowering butter-yellow or orange witch-hazel (Hamamelis) or primrose-yellow winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora) for a bright color harmony. A carpet of glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa), anemones, and trout lilies looks lovely blanketing the ground among the awakening crowns of clumping ferns like Dryopteris and Polystichum. As the season progresses, the expanding fronds will obscure the ripening bulb foliage.

Bold Bulbs

Hybrid tulips have the reputation of being short-lived, so many gardeners pass them over for the more predictable results of daffodils and crocuses. Why not enjoy hybrid tulips, knowing they will not perennialize? I treat them as annuals in shaded spots and reap all of the joy with none of the disappointment. Use a dozen tulips to add height and lift to a less-than-spectacular-looking corner of the garden and it comes alive. Spruce up a quiet, shaded area with a drift of tulips in contrasting or harmonious colors, depending on your taste. Tulip bulbs are inexpensive, and the reward is great for little effort. If they are not meant to be permanent, you can cut the yellowing foliage to the ground or pull the plants out after flowering.

Try double white 'Mt. Tacoma' with white bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba') and blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), or pink 'Angélique' with rosy Dicentra spectabilis and white barrenwort (Epimedium x youngianum 'Niveum'). Pastel color combinations are easy. Combine soft pink tulips with white narcissus and soft blue 'Valerie Finnis' grape hyacinth. Pale blue Ipheion is lovely with white and soft yellow bicolor 'Lemon Drop' daffodils and creamy 'Yellow Present' tulips. For late spring, orange 'Generaal de Wet' tulips bloom amongst the sepia blades of leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchananii). I use this floral wealth to create exciting combinations that temporarily take center stage like actors vying for a part in a one-act play.

Daffodils excel in any garden setting. I planted 'Jetfire', a bicolor with a yellow perianth (sepals and petals) and an orange cup, behind clumps of deep cherry-red primroses with deep orange centers (Primula 'Avondale'), and the combination is fantastic in front of soft orange Chaenomeles x superba 'Cameo' and intense red Hamamelis 'Diana'. The witch-hazel blooms in late winter above a carpet of winter aconite, both of which fade as the daffodils open.

For dramatic effect, plant tangerine-colored crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis 'Primeur') with burgundy-leafed Euphorbia amygdaloides 'Rubra', 'Orange Emperor' tulips, and billowing clumps of bronze Carex buchanani. Orange and purple bicolored wallflowers (Erysimum) look great with early tulip 'Purple Prince' and deep golden or orange daffodils like 'Pappy George'. Try chartreuse Fritillaria pallidiflora with variegated Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'), purple hellebores, and blue-flowered squill (Scilla bifolia), or deep blue grape hyacinth with rose and yellow 'Elegant Lady' tulips and a pink-cup daffodil such as 'Katy Heath'.

Subtle Schemes

Many species bulbs and some miniature or dwarf hybrids are small-flowered, so they have more visual impact when planted in large clumps or bold sweeps. Carpets of winter aconite and English bluebells under the towering tulip poplars at Winterthur Museum and Gardens in Delaware have inspired generations of gardeners to grow spring-flowering bulbs. Sheets of snowdrops, Crocus tommasinianus, and grape hyacinths seen self-sowing freely around old homesteads give hope to gardeners who plant bulbs a dozen at a time and wait for them to spread.

Bulbs with short stature, such as spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum), scillas, and golden star (Triteleia ixioides 'Starlite') look best erupting through a low groundcover with small leaves such as sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) or creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera); these will not overwhelm the bulbs' flowers.

In a rock garden, plant a succession of dwarf bulbs, such as species daffodils and tulips, dwarf ornamental onions, oxalis, and rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides) to add color among dwarf shrubs and conifers. Delicate bulbs like Brimeura, Ixiolirion, and Ithuriel's spear (Triteleia laxa) often show to best advantage in a rock garden, free of the lush foliage and large flowers of traditional garden plants that may overwhelm or outshine them. Basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatalis), aubretia (Aubrieta), wild buckwheat (Eriogonum), and primroses (Primula) are colorful spring-blooming companions for small bulbs. Pinks (Dianthus), beard-tongues (Penstemon), saxifrages, sedums (Hylotelephium), thyme, and other spreading plants will fill the void left by yellowing foliage.

Some unusual bulbs, such as Calochortus, many Fritillaria species, and Chilean blue crocus (Tecophilaea cyanocrocus) demand rock-garden conditions to succeed outside their native grassland or desert habitats. Plant them in clumps or drifts so their delicate flowers will show up from a distance, and surround them with dwarf grasses, alpine ferns, Lewisia, cacti, and other showy dryland plants. If you do not have room or desire for a rock garden, try these delicate bulbs in a trough garden placed on a deck or patio.

Bulbs can even spill over into the less manicured areas of the garden where they add color with little care. Naturalize daffodils, crocuses, snowdrops, and myriad others in the rough grass of an orchard or meadow, or even in your lawn. Choose strong-growing hybrids listed in catalogs for naturalizing, or better yet, species that will reproduce by offsets and by self-sown seed. If you plant bulbs in your lawn, mow the grass close in late winter, before the tender shoots emerge, then take a break until the bulb foliage is fully ripened. If you naturalize only dwarf bulbs, not overblown daffodils or tall tulips, you can set the mower blade high and cut right above the growing leaves without damaging them.

In a woodland setting, wild species and smaller selections blend in better than gaudy hybrids. Their delicate flowers are more in keeping with native woodland wildflowers and ferns. Most deciduous shrubs allow ample light through their branches in spring, allowing bulbs to bloom freely. Plan combinations around early-flowering shrubs such as wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), forsythia, and fragrant viburnum (Viburnum carlesii). Snowdrops, glory-of-the-snow, winter aconite, and cyclamen will greet the first warm days together with the flowers of the shrubs. Pale, primrose-yellow winter hazel underplanted with soft yellow daffodils and blue-flowering squill (Scilla bifolia) is enchanting. White-flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) sets off blue glory-of-the-snow, daffodils, anemones, and early Kaufman tulips.

The beauty of spring-blooming bulbs lies in their early flowering and ephemeral nature. Save for a few long-lasting daffodils, most are as fleeting as spring green itself. To celebrate this tenuous place in the spring sun, devise combinations that show your bulbs to best effect when they look their best, and hide them in their inevitable decline. Attention to detail and judicious placement will get your garden off to a colorful start. Whether you plant a carefully orchestrated Border scheme, a bluebell dell, or a single container of tulips on your balcony, bulbs enliven spring and fill the air with enticing fragrance.

C. Colston Burrell is an avid plantsman, garden designer, and award-winning author.

Comments will be posted after review; your email address will not be displayed. Have a gardening question for BBG staff? Reach out to our Gardener's Help Line.

Image, top of page: Elizabeth Peters