Layering Bulbs – Small garden or no garden – No Problem!

Tulips and daffodils are what most people think of when they talk about spring bulbs, but there are so many more to choose from.  Most bulbs require very little root space so they can be planted quite densely and thus are perfect for those that have small gardens. They also don’t take up a lot of space in the garden once they are growing because most die back after blooming and have tall straight stems. Because flowers are generally pretty large and showy compared to the amount of foliage, you get a lot of bang for your garden space buck. In a one to two square foot hole you can get a patch that will flower from early spring well into summer.

First step; pick your bulbs. Usually but not always bigger bulbs will have bigger flowers and little bulbs; you guessed it smaller flowers. The bigger ones generally, but not always bloom later. So, even if you don’t know the exact bloom time for your bulbs you can be pretty safe planting the bigger ones on the bottom and decreasing the size as you move up in your layers. Do your research on bloom time if you want to be sure that you will always have something in bloom.  There are many different bulbs that could be included but the main categories are:

• Lilies and Alliums (for summer bloom)
• Narcissi and Tulips (for spring bloom)
• Muscari, Scilla, Iris reticulata, Crocus and other early spring bulbs
These are the “classic” bulbs that are used but please; check out your catalogs for some more unusual offerings!

You don’t have to use all of these layers; just two layers would also be fine. Layering also works great over a larger area. You can mix and match your bulbs however you like…be creative. If you use 2 different types of tulips (for example) in a layer, you may lengthen your bloom time a little bit. Do use your “design sense” however. If you use too many different things in one area things can look a little bit chaotic.  Oriental-lily-Loreto

How many bulbs should you buy?  You have to think about if you care about next year’s show, or what you will see in 3 or 4 years. How often do you want to dig it up and redo it? Plant more to get a great show the first year, and less if you want to take the lazy way out and not have to dig them up so soon do to overcrowding. Here are some approximate numbers.  In a 2 square foot hole you could fit, about 5 lilies, 7-12 daffodils, tulips or alliums (or any combination of them) and 20-30 small bulbs. The size of the bulbs is also important. You can fit fewer big top size bulbs than small offsets…duh.
What colors should you use? Well, what colors do you like? Work with the colors of other things in your garden. Too many colors can cause the eye to jump around. Usually you don’t have to worry about this however because your bulbs will be blooming at different times.
All of your plants don’t have to be bulbs.  It is fine to use a ground cover such as a quick-growing annual or low growing perennial in the top layer.  Some ideas of things to use here are parsley, alyssum, creeping sedums, creeping veronicas.  These ground covers serve 3 purposes; they add beauty to your planting in-between the flowering of the bulbs, they “mulch” the soil, conserving moisture and preventing weeds, and they can help to hide the foliage of the bulbs when they are done.
Layering bulbs is similar to making lasagna.  Layers of drainage material, bulbs, soil and ground covers or mulch are used instead of sauce and noodles.

The first step is to find a bare spot in the garden.  Check out your perennials in the summer and mark the spot as it can be difficult to remember in fall when the perennials are finished.  Since you will be planting densely the spot really does have to be empty of other plants to begin with.
Another benefit of planting all of your bulbs in one spot is that it will be easy to find them in fall when you want to divide them.  Scilla-mischtschenkoana
Here is your step by step “How To”:
• Dig a deep hole at least 12″ but 14″ is better and at least 16-18″ wide (remember you can use a larger area). The hole does not have to be perfectly round.  An irregular sized hole will give you a more natural appearance.
• Remove the soil and mix it with lots of good compost and add any organic or other fertilizer that you choose to use. Move the soil mixture into a bucket.
• Place some drainage material like coarse sand in the bottom of the hole, 1-3 inches is good depending on how sandy or clay-like your soil is.
• Next fill in about 2-3″ of the soil mixture.
• Now you can start to plant. Large bulbs go first. Cover with about 2″ of your soil mix.White-Tulip
• Next plant mid-sized bulbs. You try to fit them in between the bulbs below but don’t worry, emerging shoots of the lower layer bulbs just bend around anything they hit sitting over their heads and keep on growing.  Again cover with 2″ of your soil mix.
• Then plant the smallest bulbs that are also the earliest blooming. Finally cover with the last of your soil mix. It should be about 2 more inches and the ground should be level.
• After the blooms have faded, be sure to let the foliage die back naturally because this is how bulbs build up their strength for next year. It is okay to remove the flower stalks when they are finished to keep the garden looking tidy. You can also remove old foliage when it starts to yellow. It is green foliage that is nourishing the bulb for next year. It’s okay to bend it down a little if you don’t like the way that it looks.
• Water a little more often in the first weeks after you plant your bulbs to help them form their roots.
Please be careful when removing foliage from bulbs or picking cut flowers.  Many bulbs especially daffodils, tulips and hyacinths can cause severe contact dermatitis in susceptible individuals. Wear gloves and be very careful not to drip the sap from the stems on your skin.  Many workers in the bulb industry will tell you that “lily itch” is no fun.

Don’t worry; certain bulbs may be planted a little deeper than they would if you just planted them by themselves. The stuff in the hole will provide better protection winter heaving and at worst they will bloom a little later than your neighbor’s.

Daffodil-tazetta-Canary-BirdMany people also use bulbs for layering in containers.  This makes a beautiful display for your porch or patio.  Here are some things to remember about planting bulbs in containers.
• The bulbs can touch each other but should not touch the sides of the container.
• In Wisconsin even hardy bulbs will probably not survive the winter in containers.  You will have to either say good-bye to them or plant them in the ground.
• Bulbs like tulips and daffodils need a period of cold to bloom so either put them in the refrigerator or you can try putting the whole pot in a very cold but not freezing garage or basement.
• This is a perfect way to use bulbs that are not hardy in our area like elephant ears, cannas, callas, caladiums, and tubers like dahlias.  Once the display is finished you can put the entire pot in a cool dark place in your basement and bring it out in spring.  This works best if you have a sunny place indoors where you can bring them out and get them going before the season starts.
• Bulbs in containers will need extra fertilizer.
• Your contained bulbs will eventually outgrow your pot; some quicker than others, and you will have to replant.
• Planting in a pot is a great idea for certain bulbs that are sometimes eaten by rodents like crocus, and tulips.
• Make sure your pots have drainage holes (very important) and add additional drainage material in the bottom of the pot.
• It’s not a good idea to leave valuable clay or ceramic pots outside.  Freeze thaw cycles can crack them or cause them to flake.  Cement or plastic pots are fine outside over the winter.

Happy planting!