Bulbs are amazing, aren’t they? You plant this nondescript little package in the ground and a few months later have beautiful flowers. They need so little yet provide so much color and interest. I talked with Judy Glattstein, bulb-growing expert and author of Bulbs for Garden Habitats, to get some of her tips and recommendations for bulbs that will work even in those challenging garden spots.
How to buy the right bulb for your garden
Whatever bulb you plan to grow, Judy suggests buying them as you do onions — make sure they’re heavy and firm with no mushy or brown spots. See our tips for making sure you buy the best bulbs.
Also, do a little checking on the native environment of the bulbs you like to get an idea of which growing conditions work best for them. Then choose the ones that most closely match the conditions in your yard. Did you know that tulips are native to mountains of Central Asia in places that have quick drainage and dry summers? It’s no wonder most thrive in rock gardens.
Let’s take a look at some common garden challenges you may face and the bulbs you can count on to spruce things up.
The right bulbs for hot and dry spots
Do you have a place that’s hard to water or doesn’t get a lot of rain? Or maybe it’s next to a sidewalk with plenty of reflected heat like the one in the photo above. Tulips planted in fall for spring bloom are your color-packed solution. Add some drought-tolerant perennials or shrubs to keep things interesting the rest of the year.
In summer, when the bulbs are dormant, tulips like to be dry. So if you’re watering your lawn or some nearby annuals a lot, that probably isn’t the right spot.
Choosing the right tulip group makes a difference, too. You may get 3 to 4 years from some of the hybrids, but others are more likely to return for many years. Judy’s had great luck with species tulips, such as the short ‘Tangerine Beauty’ above — they come back every year and even spread quickly into larger colonies. Most work well near the front of the border or in a rock garden.
Species tulips for hot, dry spots
Crocus tulip Tulipa humilis
Blooms Pale pink to magenta flowers in early spring Light Full sun Size 4 to 6 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 8
Greigii tulip Tulipa greigii
Blooms Flowers in yellow, red, pink, orange or bicolors in early spring Light Full sun to part shade Size 6 to 20 in. tall, 6 to 9 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8
Vvedensky’s tulip Tulipa vvedenskyi ‘Tangerine Beauty’
Blooms Red flowers with yellow streaks in late spring Light Full sun Size 6 to 12 in. tall, 3 to 6 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8
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Bulbs that brighten up shade
There are a lot of bulbs that grow happily in shade. Most bloom early, like the snowdrops above, soaking up all the sun before the tree canopy fills in. By that time the bulbs have gone dormant, patiently waiting for their chance to bloom again next spring. With small flowers like these, you’ll need to plant a lot of them so they’re easy to see.
Bulb planting tip
Use Judy’s rule of thumb for planting to get the best effect with any size bulb:
- Plant small bulbs in groups of 25 or more
- Plant medium-sized ones, such as tulips, in groups of 10 or more
- Plant large bulbs, such as alliums, in groups of three to five to make a statement
Common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis
Blooms White flowers in late winter to early spring Light Full sun to part shade Size 4 to 6 in. tall, 2 to 3 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9
Misczento squill Scilla mischtschenkoana
Blooms Pale blue flowers in early spring; up to 3 weeks earlier than other scilla species Light Full sun to part shade Size 4 to 6 in. tall and wide Hardiness Coldhardy in USDA zones 4 to 8
Tommies crocus Crocus tommasinianus
Blooms Pale to dark purple in spring Light Full sun to part shade Size 3 to 4 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8
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Bulbs that play well in crowded borders
To grow bulbs in a mixed border, you need ones that don’t mind the extra watering the other plants require to get through summer. Fill the gap between spring and summer blooms with alliums, such as ‘Pinball Wizard’ above. Lower growing neighbors will provide a connection between the tall flower and the garden below.
Position any companions just in front instead of directly on top of the bulb. That way the other plant won’t overshadow the bulb’s foliage, hindering the photosynthesis that ensures flowers next year.
Allium Allium ’Pinball Wizard’
Blooms Purple flowers in summer Light Full sun Size 18 to 24 in. tall, 15 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8
Triplet lily Triteleia laxa ’Rudy’
Blooms White flowers with blue stripes in early spring Light Full sun to part shade Size 13 to 18 in. tall, 6 to 9 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9
Turk’s-cap lily Lilium superbum
Blooms Orange with maroon speckles in summer Light Full sun to part shade Size 48 to 72 in. tall, 6 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9
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Bulbs that add surprising color in fall
There’s more to fall bulbs than dahlias. Wouldn’t the dainty large autumn crocus be a nice surprise peeping up through long-lasting ground covers, such as lamb’s ear?
Large autumn crocus foliage comes up in spring then goes dormant; the flower stems, above, pop up in fall. Grape hyacinth does the opposite — the flowers show up in spring, and the leaves in fall. Use this characteristic to your advantage to mark spots where you’ve planted other bulbs, such as daffodils, so you don’t dig up or damage established plantings when the plants are dormant.
Autumn crocus Colchicum autumnale
Blooms Pink or white flowers in fall Light Full sun to part shade 3 to 6 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9
Cyclamen Cyclamen hederifolium
Blooms Pink or white flowers in late summer to fall Light Part shade Size 4 to 6 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8
Large autumn crocus Crocus speciosus
Blooms Purple flowers in fall Light Full sun Size 3 to 6 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9