October 1, 2019

Tulips, Alliums and my current thoughts about spring Bulbs

Dare yourself to try tulips in colors you normally would not plant. A red tulip may be more complex in color than you might imagine it to be. Find yourself hating orange? What if it was a deep persimmon color flushed with purple, violet and magenta? Tulips offer all sorts of color options far beyond the slick, commerical studio photo may indicate.

It's nearly too late to order bulbs, but there is still a bit of time (do it now!). I am high on bulb-ordering and planting right now, and thought that I might share some new insights and ideas I have about my bulb planting schemes, and some from others that I recently discovered.

Ordering bulbs is one of those things that sometimes overwhelms me. I am experienced enough to know that in July I must order the rarest of the rare which often must be imported from overseas - Latvia or Lithuania (and as such, the cut-off date for these smaller European nurseries is before Aug. 1st - not to mention that things sell out quickly). Not that I order all that much anymore from Ruksans or that Lithuanian crocus nursery, but sometimes I try to remember, and if lucky, I get a few treasures. 

Bulb planting and curating is indeed an art, and a craft that good gardeners keep perfecting over their lifetime. The good news is that bulbs are rather fool-proof, so there is no bad time to begin, and fear of messing it up is rarely a threat. Still, when it all comes together and you discover the ideal combination of bulbs in the garden, the effect can be extraordinary. Far too often, especially in the US, we plant bulbs as an afterthought. We pick up a few - a dozen of these, 24 of those, some crocus for along the walk, maynbe a frittilaria or three and feel that we are doing the right thing. Most of us learn by seeing, and it seems every year we are pushing oursleves to try something new. One neight has an amazing display of giant allium and soon others invest in a dozen or six, to flank their walk or set in the border. But what else could you do?

I say...let's raise the bar much higher. Plant complex matrixes in our perennial borders. Push ourselves to try colors that we wouldnt dare buy or combine. Plant something you've never grown before. Break the rules and try combining two, three, eight colors that make you feel uncomfortable. Blow your budget by investing in 100 bulbs of just one type - like giant frittilaria imperialis or F. persica and see what happens.

Tulips combined with other spring bulbs and flower from my garden (in this rejected photo from my new book) show how surprisingly well they all combine together. Of course, such density doesnt happen in the garden, but notice how red and white striped tulips here and there play against other bulbs like the frittilaria.

After that, I seem to get lazy. Or, maybe just dazed and confused with all of the choices offered in the main-stream imported Dutch bulb catalogs. This shouldn't stall me. I have been growing bulbs since I was very young begging my mom to let me buy bulbs at a local discount store (Spag's in Shrewsbury, MA) at around the same time I would be asking my dad to buy me Matchbox cars. Im sure that at young age, I would choose colors that I probably would never buy today, as experimenting in a garden is a right of passage for most gardeners. Plant fearlessly and learn.

We may think that the harsh-coloring of tulips like this red and yellow parrot tulip are too extreme for us, but in a garden that is still mostly grey and brown, it stands out and acually feels very natural.

Don't get me wrong, I love color, and after 30 years as a graphic and product designers - I love to experiment and play with palettes - but back then, I was probably more likely to be moved by a fancy striped 'Rembrant' tulip than being as strategic as creating a palette and an integrated garden design. The funny thing is, I've never walked away from those streaked and striped 'Rembrant'-type tulips, in fact, I am even more interested in sourcing the correct 'Rembrant' types - those that actually have the virus that causes the window-paneing and streaks - but sadly, they are hard if not impossible to find easily in the US anymore (and the very great ones, while available in the UK, are always sold out by the time I remember to order some),

I am always pleased with this combination in very late winter or early spring. Maybe becasue it is like fire or 'heat'? But it totally works in my garden.

This past weekend I had the incredible honor to be asked by the Massachusetts Master Gardeners annual Symposium. Joining three other speakers, I stayed for the entire day and learned much more than I thought I might. The topics were perfectly timed for the season, with noted bulb expert Jacqueline van der Kloet author of the new book 'A Year in My Garden'  that will be available in the US next February on Amazon (it's available in the UK sooner, however). 

Here in the states you may know of her work in planning the fantastic bulb palette at the Chicago Lurie garden, (or that blue allee of scillas and other blue minor bulbs at the Bedford, NY home of Martha Stewart). Jacqueline's slide show was very inspirational for me, as not only do I enjoy seeing how others combine their bulbs, but it changed how I think about choosing and planting bulbs. You can visit her website to see how she combines bulbs and plants, but I'd say get her book as well. She layers a matrix across an entire garden or bed, often mixing bulbs within perennials and grasses as the Dutch tend to do to make gorgeous communities of plants.

I should mention that the other two speakers were Paul Zammit - the Director of Horticulture from the Toronto Botanical Gardens, and Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter. (I know, right? How could I forget that line up?). Fergus had many slides with bulbs, as did Paul who showed them mostly in containers, but still so inspirational. Seeing three accomplished gardeners share their ideas on what one can do with bulbs had me staying up all night ordering tulips. These seminars are dangerous.

Now, this year, I was a good boy and ordered many of my tulips and bulbs earlier (just a few weeks ago), starting with bulbs sell out quickly, a(mostly Madonna lilies) and galanthus varieties so with me, a deadline is always good, but for everything else, I keep stalling and making list after list, usually committing only once I start seeing my favorite varieties selling out. I hate that feeling. My problem is usually that I cant make up my mind.

In gardening, we are often taught to plant great numbers of one variety together, and while this works well with many plants, it can be boring. Imagine this bed of tulips with two more varieties of contrasting or similar colors, or smaller bulbs are perennials scattered throughout.

Jacqueline van der Kloet focused three points - the color palette, the transitions between the various bulb seasons -and how to integrate bulbs into borders or with other plants. So imagine a bed of perennials and interplanted bulbs through the entire spring season. It can begin with smaller bulbs, the early ones like snow drops and crocus, and then transition along with early emerging perennials into one stage of early to mid-season tulips and maybe narcissus in one color palette, and then how that same bed could move into a late-spring statement, maybe with giant alliums and the tallest tulips that were late-blooming. I think in this country, we forget to weave in a web of densly planted bulbs of many types within our perennial borders. Instead we either clump types together, or we place a few allium and call it a day.

Both Fergus and Jacquiline used similar varieties as well, which surprised me as maybe I was missing something. Sure there were muscari and scillas set out as a carpet - even forgetmenots, self seeded in pools of color usually over planted with a red or apricot Darwin or early tulip, but then tall and magestic late blooming tulips scattered throughout a bed with emerging perennials took over - and more than one color sprinkled around a border as if they too self seeded in amongst the perennials and other bulbs. Both used lily-flower tulips that bloom late, but are very tall - like brilliant orange 'Ballerina' tulips and 'Merlot', a deep wine colored one with vase -shaped buds. Two tulips I would never think of buying when I see them in catalogs. 

A mid of colored tulips works well, but while this formal English bedding scheme of nothing but tulips works here at Tower Hill; Botanic Garden, few of us have the time and dollars to pull out an entire Victorian bedding scheme once it is complete to install something else. I do plant a few rows like this around the garden, near the greenhouse or along a drive, but always remember that you can create your own mix of tulips and sprinkle them through a border of perennials.

Top back this up, 'Merlot' shows up frequently on top Euro garden designers 'favortie plants' lists. So I need to order some, as apparantly the color blends in well with other plants, and it is of a shade of purple that works well in the garden. I mean - let's face it, some tulips in purple are too dark or just receded when viewed in the garden. Others are too lavender, or feel out of place in the natural setting. 

Now here's the thing about tulips - something I learned early-on in my career when I used to help install spring flower show displays in the late 1970's - There is hardly a bad combination of colors when it comes to tulips. So honestly, mixing up a bunch of similar or even different colors is often not a bad idea. Most colors work well, but if you are committed to a scheme or want to curate a particular palette, it's not a bad idea to mix three different varieties of the same or similar color. A peachy pink, a dark pink and a magenta, for example. Many of us have learned this lesson with dahlias, but now let's take it to tulips. I want to plant a bed of all the red tulip shades together to see if it will convince me that solid red tulips can be beautiful in the garden.

Tulip colors are often much more complex than we imagine that they are. A wine colored variety with an orange one may seem like it wouldnt work, but once you examine the colors in a petal, you can begin to see the variety of tones and layers in a blossom that might make you rethink how you combine colors. Solid or bi-colored pre-curated mixed sometimes feel sterile compared to a complex mix of bulbs.

We tend to make crazy rules about color, which I understand but not if you have never grown that particular plant and have seen it in flower in your garden. I've worked with a few clients this spring who had very strict rules about the colors they wanted with their tulips. And while I tried to convince them that in springtime, combinations like orange and purple are extraordinary once viewed in a spring garden (particularly one that is still mostly brown or grey, with lime green growth emerging) but I think many people just imagine a harsh Sunkist orange (as in a closeup of a tulip photo in a catalog) and seeing the entire picture - meaning, the low-angle setting spring sunshine which is so bright and direct, especially when it illuminates the petal from an angle, and the atmospheric tones of a spring garden - mostly every shade of greyish brown - essentially a canvas of earthy colors (more grey on overcast days, and more chocolate and cocoa on sunny days) all with speckles of lime green foliage on branch tips, or reddish emerging tips on perennials). 

Look at the colors on this parrot tulip. On an overcast day, it's almost blue or violet - yet a photo in a catalog may look simply bright red. Light is everything when it comes to tulips and most bulbs, and the fact that this purple-blushy red tulip blooms when the garden is still mostly brown, granite and grey? Means that it looks outstanding in the landscape.

We really need to think like artists or painters and not interior designers when we choose our spring palettes with bulbs (or even annuals). I mean - you may not be interested in white flowers, but snowdrops? How precious are those in February or March? You never think about a color palette when planting those bulbs. They 'fit' perfectly with dried woodland leaves, composting branches and bits of the remaining show. 

'Black tulips' which are really dark violet, always seem like a good idea, but just be sure to site them well. They need distance behind them or light-green foliage somwhere to add contrast. If you do the often mimiced scheme of black and white together the effect can even be worse, as the white tulips will stand out and the dark ones will recede. Think first then plant.

So imagine tulips now. I've experienced great excitement with tulips that few might think are attractive in the garden - those bright yellow and red or maroon-streaked varieties like 'Hellmar', 'Gavotta' or brighter yet - 'Keizerkroon' or a favorite 'Bright Parrot' which to many with taste, may seem like a clown-pants inspired combo, but there is a reason why it is the one parrot that sells out first in most catalogs - when you see it in full bloom in the brown and grey garden of April? You instantly 'get it'. It 'works' then, and only then. Even better when combined with the deep purple of Muscari or the blues of hyacinths - I mean - It's spring 100%. And it's a combo that would never work in June or even in high summer where it truly would be considered tasteless and eye-bleeding, but in April or May? It is completely acceptable and creates joy in much the same way Easter pastels do in March, but never in October.

Here dark tulips set against a light background work great. Even on an overcast day.

Speaking of pastels colors and Easter colors - in the garden, that palette can often be dull. You need to push it a bit into Sweet Tart bliss with the addition of other candy colors to really make it work. What I mean is, again - a palette that can work in the grey and brown canvas of early spring will rarely work any later once the foliage emerges in the garden. I often have to remind new flower gardeners that while planning a garden in winter is fun and important (the process of cutting out photos of flowers from seed catalogs or using screen-grabs to create an idea board), the reality is often very different once you get the plants out into the garden. 

Most tulips pair well with each other, but I find that the pure or solid colors like solid pink or solid red are often the most difficult to use outdoors. Be open to using shaded tones, light orange to dark orange combined with purple, or many shades of orange (which in tulips often include bits of pink) combined with other colors.

We should all pay attention to the total atmosphere of space. Reflected light, the angle of light, what the plants will be set against, a dark hedge or a distant view, even a fence that is painted white. Remember that the real garden experience is often missed by planning merely on paper or on-screen. More often than not, we forget that a garden is mostly all green (or brown and tan in spring).

Similarly to the black-tulip -juxtaposition concept, lime green and burgundy foliage on perennials and shrubs in early spring can be used as a great effect with tulips. Notice the tulip foliage which often is a harsh, kelly green that does little to enhange the blooms, but the gold tradescantia and peony foliage add as much color to the canvas as the tulips do.

I like to encourage folks to first take notes and digital photos (scroll back on the pics you took the past few seasons - flag those that worked, or ones that revealed insights that surprised you, and also mark what didn't work. I do both, and often my notes in a notebook are the most useful, then backed up with photos that are visual. In this way, my handwritten notes reminded me that all of those borders with purple, white and pink tulips I saw at posh suburban gardens were - well, yawwwwnnnn. While a few with the sparkle of Princes Irene orange tulips and violet tulips with an underplanting of Muscari were 'wow'. 

Tulip 'Princes Irene' is a long-time favorite of mine. Many might think of it as simply an orange tulip, but depending on the light that particular day, it can look burginy feathered with a blush of lavender frost across the entire petal, or purple againse persimmon. It pairs perfectly with blue Muscari or scilla. It's dark stems too make it a standout in a spring garden.

The combination made my heart race and it felt like spring. I also noted down why, because Princes Irene is a unique tulip - one that has a faint feathering on violet on the outside of the petals - over the 'orange' (and while I realize that orange is a polarizing color' this ain't no orange tulip - it's a complex blend of colors (like most good tulips) that changes over time. Once you add the airbrushing of pale lavender blush over the deep persimmon of the bloom and the violet feathering, along with the dark stems and foliage - and the underplanting of deep violet muscari, and you can instantly see why this is a favorite of botanical garden planners, good garden designers, and again, why it sells out early. Also, it was featured on the cover of last years' White Flower Farm catalog.

'Broken' or 'Rembrant' types are always a favorite with me.


This year, I am ordering 100 each of the tall, lily flowered tulips - 'Ballerina' (orange) and 'Merlot'. If both experts use them in their gardens, I must try - and it does make sense, at least in dense, community plantings which are essentially the borders I have here (a combo of grasses, small shrubs, perennials and self-sowing annuals). I need tall tulips to emerge through all of the growth and to float above the bright foliage -much of which is lime green or purple.

'Gavotta' is a dark wine colored tulip with custard colored edges, another favortie of mine as it fits nicely into the landscape, but it is harder to mix in with other tulips.

I also am designing an earlier matrix of multi-flowered narcissus, muscari, scilla to provide early color, and a secondary palette of Early Tulips, that is more traditional 'spring', if you will - Easter candy-colored blooms ranging from 'Apricot Beauty' tulips, to lavender, ones white brushed with red, and pale yellow brushed with white 'Vancouver'. I love this combo which when combined with Muscari 'Valerie Finnis' reminds me of the old, spring flower shows that I used to go to as a kid at Horticultural Hall in my home town on Worcester, MA.

In the greenh
This winter I am forcing a collection of swarf iris -mostly Iris reticulata named selections, not just because they are easy, but because they are beautiful, and interesting when viewed as a collection with all of the varieties.
 They are also rather inexpensive.

Let's not forget forcing bulbs. If you plant to do any forcing, these too are best to order first so that you can get them chilling. I'm planting my bulbs for forcing this week - as I need 16 weeks of vernal cooling. This year I am focusing on growing all of the dwarf iris I can get my hands on (so far 25 varieties of I. reticulata). They are easy (yes, I am lazy and impatient at times), and I can take them out from under then benches near the foundation where they chill near 38° F as early as New Years' Day, to provide a boost of spring color both in the greenhouse and indoors briefly in mid-January. 

Iris reticulata bulbs are placed into plastic pots with a quick-draining potting mix, and kept outdoors until November or when hard-freezes threaten as I dont want the bulbs to freeze. They then are moved to a location which is dark and just above freezing until New Year's Day or after. For me, that's in the greenhouse on the floor under a bench but you might try an isulated beer cooler on your porch or in an unheated garage or shed that doesnt freeze.

Of course, paperwhites have been ordered - most of the various varieties because I love the scent of cat pee (really, they all smell good to me), and some smaller forcing narcissus - particularly the hoop miniatures, which have become very inexpensive this year for some reason (the 'Julia Jane' strain) which I pot up thickly in 4 inch pots. These too will add cheer in January and February.

I can already imagine what my plant windows will look like starting in late January with the forced bulbs, but it does take some planning -which is sometimes difficult in late summer and early autumn with other tasks calling you.

I am working of a bit of a mini-master plan of the garden, in an attempt to just be more mindful about what I plant. The new borders and walks where the putting green used to be, isn't complete yet as I spent the summer working on my new book, but there are spots where I want to plant different combinations of things. One side path that leads to the old stone long walk has about 8 feet shaded by a tall Picea japonica 'Skylands'. The soil here is perfectly loamy and well-draining, and I filled it with turks cap lilies (Asiatic pendant ones) last year, which did very well. I trialed a few Fritillaria pallidiflora here for the past two years, and they thrived so this year I am adding 40 more. A little excessive but I've learned that investing in a big show with some plants is much better than getting just 5, or 10. It's an excellent habit to exercise with any plant in the garden. 

My TIp for you? Keep your tulip bulbs cool, and not indoors until you plant them. THe buds inside tulips can abort in room-temperature settings (like a hardware store).  Also avoid discount tulips if they have been mistreatred - a local supermarket keeps thier bulbs outside too late in the season and I know they have frozen many times before being sold. Ideally, good garden centers will keep them in a cool room, and not expose them to hot temperatures. When in doubt, mail order is often the best way to get bulbs at the right time for planting.

Of course, before investing in significant numbers of one plant, it's always good to trial them. I have killed many fritillaria imperialis over the years, but I have one yellow one in a certain spot that has bloomed annually for over 20 years. In this spot, I want to plant a larger collection of them, but as they are costly to invest in, I will wait a year or two. This year I am still ordering a few smaller lots of other bulbs (tulips in various colors) and narcissus) to 'trial' as one really should observe them 'in the garden' on-site, to see how the colors really look in the unique light and colors of your garden. I sometimes just plant these smaller lots in the veg garden, because I can use them as cut flowers, moving them later if I love the combos into the borders.

Alliums were never really all that interesting to me, but lately, I've appreciated their value. I'm referring here to the large if not gigantic and tall alliums like 'Gladiator' and 'Ambassador.' While costly, (and always worth it if you can spare not eating for a month) when May arrives, one rarely regrets all of that ramen. To make things more afforable, I've learned to tier-out various large alliums, not buying as many of the super-sized ones, just a few. I plant 6-12 of each giant variety filling in with smaller ones. The reality ends up being about 25 per bed, but again, they are being mixed-together with other bulbs and perennials and together, put on a sensational show that doesn't break the bank.

Cut-flower farms for tulips are becoming more commom like this one in Rhode Island, but notice how the rows of colors are rather uninteresting. These places are a great place to see lots of varieties together though, and if labeled, make notes of how you imagine certain colors being planted together.

Jacquiline showed how she mixes and planted large amounts of bulbs in the mixed borders. She has her team mix up a batch of bulbs in a wheelbarrow and then tosses then into a border so that they land irregularly spaced. On commissioned sites, she has the border mown, so that one can see the bulbs, and then a team goes in and moving from one end of a bed to the other, they get planted.

Jacquiline did share a tip - which she sometimes has to use, which is after they toss around all of the bulbs, she sets out apples where the allium might go, as these are bulbs that are sometimes shipped separately and you don't want to shove a spade into an expensive fritillaria! While randomness is encouraged when spacing bulbs, there are placed were rows work (at least in my garden). I don't mind a tidy row of something lined along a path if it is well-curated with tiers and interest.

There have been years when I tried mixed that were just 'too expected' or too pretty, if that could be a thing. This mix just wasnt for me as it felt a little too contrived or matchy matchy.

Mostly though, all of us agreed that mixed planting is the way to go, with a natural approach that is both modern and respectful of nature. Such garden is not only good pollinator communities but ecosystems, a point Fergus made when they had Great Dixter audited recently  (2017) to discover the biodiversity. I don't have the details as I forgot my notebook, but his first response from the government authorities on such matters was more of a nod, as they expressed that a 'garden' that is cultivated may not be as diverse as natural woodland or meadow would be. The results were staggering in favor of a garden is more varied - discovering even rare bees and other animals that shocked the auditors.

 I think we get caught up in things like permaculture, so-called 'bad invasives' and native plants - all very important, of course, but we fail to recognize the complex plant communities of our own gardens. Great Dixter even established a Biodiversity Committee in 2012, a lesson that many American public gardens could learn from or introduce, as few of us think about biodiversity in the cultivated and curated garden. We know that pollinators appreciate a mixed community, but so do other species. Learning that these complex relationships exist in the artificial or curated space is proving to be just as important as those in wild sites. I really want to learn more about this in the future.

Don't forget to plant plenty of bulbs for cut flowers too.  Often these choices are different than tulips I might choose for the borders. Darker colors are stylish now, and in a vase or indoors they can often be more effective than in the garden.
That does raise a point however, that I want to research more, after being prompted to consider writing about how spring bulbs are 'good for pollinators' by a gardening organization. As with most topics suggested to me, I started to dig a little deeper on the subject, always questioning and proof checking my sources to see, for example, if snowdrops are indeed an excellent source of pollen for early emerging bees. I quickly learned that no, they are not, as are not most spring-blooming bulbs. Sure, bees do visit these flowers, but often at risk. Honey bees may benefit the most (they are non-native, remember) but the native bees rarely visit these flowers, and aside from Bumblebees, few if any native pollinators visit imported plants this early in the spring. One study at Cornell even looked at how such plantings can harm native bees, acting like ' bird feeders' in winter - where finches and migratory seed eaters begin to depend on a site and source, that only briefly appears off-season, thus luring them into an environment that won't consistently deliver food and energy.

What I learned (briefly) was that native plants that bloom early are the best for native bees and pollinators. Pussy willows, for example, or Skunk cabbage. Shrubs that bloom early are ideal as well, as they last longer and thrive consistently when the weather is truly right where a snowdrop blooms when it is too cold, and while irresistible for pollinators, often attracts them to their death or crocus which will open for an hour if the sun is positioned to their liking and the temperature is just perfect, but will close as soon as a cloud passes over or when snow flurries strike.

It is bulb planting season but I cant start until next week. Still, keeping up with the orders as they come in is often a chore. My advice is to plant as they arrive, and don't save them up for a bulb planting day, as the task could be too much to undertake in a single day.

For now, I need to go plant bulbs as the boxes are arriving.
I know. Most of us don't have a team when it comes to planting bulbs. A task I always forget about until that time comes when on that gorgeous fall day, I have to commit to digging and planting a thousand bulbs by myself. Fergus had a slightly easier plan, and that was to set in one bulb at a time around existing perennials (which is what I will probably do). He

Lastly, you have permission to order all that you want now, as I just placed my orders today :)
One must protect one's resources~!

Some of last years tulips in my garden combined with primroses and anemones show how well many colors do go together.