Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

That essential bulb layer

In the early spring, it’s such a delight to come upon a garden that bursts with daffodils, scilla and crocuses. Yet it always amazes me how many front yards are still mostly bare and brown, with just a few shoots poking up. Without a bulb layer, you miss a whole season of color.

Bulbs are like Christmas morning in spring because they seem to just happen. You do the work in fall. October and November — any time until the soil freezes — is the time to plant bulbs to bloom next March, April and May.

I’ve learned to get most joy out of spring bulbs as I’ve developed a bulb layer that mixes early species, such as scilla and crocuses, with mid-spring bloomers, such as daffodils and tulips, and late-flowering alliums, which will take me to June or beyond. I don’t plant many tulips, because they don’t rebloom well in my heavy clay soil. Most of my bulbs are kinds that  perennialize, such as daffodils, scilla, grape hyacinths and snowdrops.

I can plant the early and mid-spring bulbs in shady areas of my garden that get a little more sun in spring before the trees leaf out. Late tulips and alliums need to be out in the full sun.

I prefer casual arrangements of bulbs, often mixing species, rather than the  single-color arrays, like regiments of redcoats, that you often see in office parks. In private gardens, though, I notice also that most people don’t plant enough. It takes a lot of bulbs, especially the small early bulbs, to make much of an impact, and I usually plant them closer together than the package suggests.

If I have a lot of bulbs to plant, I dig a wide hole, amend the soil for better drainage, lay the bulbs in the bottom and fill it in. You also can layer bulbs in a hole like that: place the biggest bulbs, such as tulips, on the bottom; sprinkle on a layer of soil; add some smaller bulbs, such as crocuses or early daffodils; and fill in on top of them. I spread a mulch layer of shredded leaves over all my bulb plantings to keep them insulated against premature sprouting.

You also can layer bulbs in a container (or use a single variety). Use a large pot and well-drained potting mix and pack the bulbs close in each layer. Water the pot and set it someplace where it will get cold but not freeze, such as an unheated garage. All spring bulbs need to spend at least 14 weeks at below  40 degrees in order to bloom.

In late winter, bring the pot into a greenhouse or into a sunny window in an indoor room that’s not too warm. Begin watering. In a few weeks your bulbs will sprout and bloom.