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Dream in Color: Fall Planting Tips for a Technicolor Spring

As we headed into autumn here in our temperate Zone 7 with visions of harvest and pumpkins and longer, cooler nights, it was also time to think about the spring garden. That’s right! Just like a fashion-forward seasonal advance, gardens so too require us to think ahead for style. And just like those fashion magazines, good garden design publications and the growers’ & nursery catalogs arrived offering their “Look Book” temptations. 

There is a kaleidoscope of dizzying Crayola® colors: – oh, the luscious lipstick reds, rich, royal purples, sunshine yellows, and sunset oranges – enough to set your heart aflutter with desire. But selecting the best or optimum spring bulbs is not for the faint of heart. So many choices. Too much mystery.

For my precious garden design clients, I do the heavy lifting: determining a variety of bulbs for their height, texture, bloom size, color, time of bloom. We want to enjoy the compositions from very early spring though to the early summer.

I will share with you a few of these planting guides so that you can get an idea of what to plant; what combinations work together and when and how to plant. So that when winter’s beauty fades, you can embrace the elegant, glamorous, glowing, somewhere-over-the-rainbow of the spring bulb colors. And blooming floral art. Think of frilly or star-shaped or dainty or blowsy. Plus, did you know you can eat the tulip petals? They are terrific as a cocktail garnish or in salad or as you please.

Garden Art with Bulbs
Perhaps it’s my Dutch ancestry (my mother’s maiden name is Voorhees – truncated from Van Voorhees. Or being mesmerized the first time I saw the L’horloge fleurie or Geneva’s botanical timekeeper/Flower Clock in Switzerland where I went to school.

Regardless of the genesis, I have always loved garden art using the stunning, visual impact of bulbs. Who can resist those naturalized, lovely daffodil drifts in larger gardens spaces and along country roads? I am attracted to that look but with more variety. As if Mother Nature waved her magical spring rainbow wand and, not unlike pixie dust, the bulbs pop their array of brilliant architecture and sometimes frilly heads to dazzle the landscape and our imaginations.

Instinctually, I feel many homeowners don’t utilize bulbs enough in their gardens. Oh, perhaps a few lonely hyacinths or clusters of tulips – but that’s not the look I dream of for me or my Duchess Designs garden clients.

Overall, the design philosophy I envision using bulbs has always been one that incorporates “the genius loci” or sense of place. By way of further explanation, genus loci incorporates the concept that a locale contains ecologically and spiritually unique qualities — and that and should be infused into the garden design.

The possibilities for designing your garden with bulbs are endless and as unique as every home and garden lover ~ whether your style is Victorian to Contemporary.

When to Plant Bulbs
Bulb growers often recommend planting when the crickets stop chirping. I love that admonishment. So intuitive. So attuned to Mother Nature’s calendar or clock.

The other big thing to consider this year is to order asap – if you or your garden designer has not already done so.

Why? For one, the Coronavirus has impacted the world of gardens in a big way (nothing is off limits.). I learned from my suppliers that the pandemic has curtailed so many of the container ships from the Netherlands, and the Dutch are the foremost growers of our spring bulbs.

The other coronavirus-related factor is two-fold: existing homeowners with a yard are amping up their gardens. And then there are those folks who have purchased a country house separate from their city residence and/or those who have sold their city places to relocate to suburbia or the country for the foreseeable future – primarily for their children. And all these folks want their gardens to be more of an oasis. A restful, peaceful, beautiful exterior design they can enjoy because if you have to stay at home and shelter in place – they want their homestead to be as beguiling, blissful and gorgeous as any paradise here on earth – a place of their dreams…

Bulbs not only awaken all our senses just when we need it most after winter, they also transition us to the start of summer and the blooming of seasonal perennials and colorful annuals and edible.

How to Achieve a Stunning Bulb Garden Design?
From my garden design experience, it requires not only that genus loci/sense of place, but the considerations of height, texture, and bloom time; not to mention complementary color, and — fragrance.

Choose bulbs that bloom in early spring – some such as the Galanthus

come up through the snow in March and then select some from mid spring,

with the early May into June crescendoing the show. It’s often said that gardens and their plants are the slowest of the performing arts! And nowhere is that more pronounced than in the spring bulb garden with its four acts.

It’s a wave of colorful blooms that never fails to astonish.

When choosing bulbs for their color, look through the catalogs and circle those that call out to you. What will work with your favorite colors? You can also take the color wheel and see the colors on the opposite side. These are the Complementary Colors.

For example, I very much like the Mediterranean mix of purples or blues with orange and yellows. Mixes hot and cooler colors.

I also tend toward the cooler shades of pink, rose, lilac, and salmons.

There is a color shade, tint, tone or hue that you can select to enhance the overall effect. Blend the various varieties to work together as a whole. And with each other.

See how I chose these two bulb companions ~ the yellow has a fuschia border at the edging — how does Mother nature do that?! – and the yellow stamen

I also lean toward the multiple bloomers – many on one stem.

And the tulips that look for all the world like mini peonies ~ my favorite flower.

Another key thing to note when ordering bulbs is that you need many bulbs. Multiples of say 25, 50, 100, or more – depending on the garden space. Don’t be shy. You need the quantity to make a visual impact. You won’t regret ordering the larger amount.

When planning your design and choosing your selections be mindful of the amount of sun and/or shade in the garden beds where you are planting.

Also consider that in the early to mid spring, the trees are not yet leafed out on the tall and understory so there is more light than you might think is there as you gaze out onto a late summer/early autumn landscape.

How to Plant Bulbs
Pay attention to your soil. If you don’t know what kind of soil you have, do a soil test. I can help you with this. Soil is paramount to every planting!

Flower bulbs need to be planted in a neutral pH soil. That means no acidic or soil amendments, according to John Scheepers.

As I’ve noted, you can’t order enough quantity of bulbs.

For me and my clients I do a landscape design rendering in order to determine the quantity for the space. I take into account the spacing and the time of bloom.

Generally speaking if you are doing it yourself, Scheepers recommends:
The square footage of a planting site is determined by multiplying the width by the length. For example, a bed that is 5′ wide and 20′ long would be 100 square feet, for which one would need 400 Tulip bulbs. If there is other plant material in the planting site, you can estimate the space involved and decrease the square footage proportionately.

And don’t separate the bublets from the Mother!

I’m often asked, which end is up when planting. The Pros’ answer:
Place each bulb firmly in the soil with the pointed end up, and the basal plate, or root base, down. The general rule of thumb is to cover the top of each Tulip bulb with 3″ to 4″ of soil.

Me and my team of horticulturists add cayenne pepper to the plantings in the fall to deter critters from digging up and again in the spring to deter the rabbits from munching on these delectable beauties. I learned this horticultural tip from the scion of the Tabasco family!

These are a Few of my Favorite Bulbs
I am forever smitten with the tall, globe alliums. It’s an enduring love affair! In blue, purple, and white. A favorite garden design client and her family refer to them as puff balls. Indeed.

I love them from the time they begin to emerge:

right through their rather Sputnik-looking spent and dried stage.

Use many of the spring blooms fresh and dried in cut flower arrangements (I know, I know – it’s so hard to cut these beauties from the garden!) as part of your tablescape.

You can also use spring bulb petals as garnishes in your cocktails.

This past spring, I showcased how to use tulip petals, for example, as a pretty and delicious garden-to-glass garnish on my weekly Garden Glamour cocktail parties as part of a salute to my book, Art of the Garnish and a sheltering in place (SIP) coronavirus pivot. The tulip petals taste not unlike a sweet onion, not surprisingly.

I also am drawn to the bulbs that have their own fashion extras, such as dots or a contrasting, two-tone color. Many emerge one shade and then like a chameleon, transform into another shade. Fascinating performances.

In terms of height, place the taller bulbs in the back of the bed and tier the shorter ones to the front.

Here, is a spring bulb composition I designed for a favorite garden client, Gigi and Ted:

Early spring and later spring:

Notice the colors and the structure.

Remember to select bulbs that not only look good with the other bulbs but also complement the flowering spring shrubs. Here, the tulips work so swell with the viburnum and the pink petals from the Kwanzan cherry tree!

And white lights up the garden and plays so well with all the other plant companions.

I can’t resist the frilly Parrot tulips. Look at this seasonal cloak as it comes up

and then later – is so glamorous when flat out pooped from the gala!

Take your time to truly enjoy your spring garden. Look here how Gina & Ted set out a happy yellow table to sit at and perhaps sip some spring wine or a cup of coffee there for an immersive garden experience.

And to punch up the interest around tree beds, use the Muscari or grape hyacinth with abandon. They are small but mighty when it comes to color – blue, periwinkle, purple, raspberry, white, plus two-toned. And their greens pop back up in the autumn! What a loyal acrobatic performer.

I chose Muscari armeniacum to underplant under trees – using the Delft Blue shades of light blue to purple.

Plan your garden design now for a spectacular spring blossom show. Order your selections right away.

Hopefully I’ve inspired you to create and/or add to your bulb garden planting.

I order most all of the bulbs for me and my clients from the very reputable John Scheepers Bulb Company ~ a family owned company for more than a century.

They not only offer superior bulbs but their customer service is second to none.

This past spring the CEO of the company called me personally not once but twice to address a question and issue ~ and took care of the resolution, as well. You don’t find that very often… Their bulbs are clean and beautiful.

I do need to source other suppliers when Scheepers is out of stock (see above) and have found some good sources on Etsy. Gotta be plucky as a garden designer in these times.

If you would like to receive my spring garden bulb plant lists I researched and designed for me and my clients, I’d be happy to share with you. Just email me or request here and I will provide it to you.

Truly ~ Garden Glamour.

1 Comment

  • This is a greeat post thanks

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"Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

Join me to celebrate a romantic, garden-infused, entertaining lifestyle filled with artful design, sparkling dinner parties, peerless martinis, and copious magnums of champagne!





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