Once they were wildflowers, poking their colorful heads and delicate blossoms through the soft spring earth wherever the guiding force of nature had set them down. But their wild ways were tamed as spring bulbs became a perfect choice for careful landscaping and color coordination. To many gardeners, the autumnal rite of bulb planting has become an almost rote exercise in precise floral grouping.
True, the appeal of well-placed bulbs, brightening April's promise around trees and in borders, is a strong one. Yet there's a different joy in seeing them crop up as if by chance, knowing you sowed such a wonderfully wild array. Many spring bulbs naturalize well in most North American regions—galanthus, scillas, crocuses, muscari, daffodils, most species of tulips (including Tulipa greigii, T. fosterana and T. kaufmanniana), alliums, anemones and others. And you don't need a lot of space to savor the effect.
The basic technique for naturalizing is quite simple. Sloping garden areas, borders between shrubs, wooded spots, and even lawns are appropriate sites. Start with at least a dozen bulbs, choose your general area and scatter them. Dig holes wherever they fall—if you want bulbs in a specific area, such as around a tree, dig a trench and scatter them in it. But the rules of spacing don't apply; some bulbs will be far apart, others close together, affording an uncontrolled look.
Don't plant too thickly at first, however leave some room for natural increases. Although you can naturalize more than one type of bulb in the same site, it's usually best to separate them, if only by color, unless they really complement each other with a balance of bold and delicate. For example, muscari, especially the popular grape hyacinth, looks better in front of daffodils than intermingled. And for the continuance of naturalized bulbs in lawn or grassy areas, don't cut the grass until the leaves of the bulbs have begun to yellow, about 4 to 6 weeks after the flowers fade.
Your soil may need improving, so have it tested. A 6 to 7 pH is desirable for most bulbs; soil below 5.5 or above 7.3 pH will cause your bulbs to fail. If your soil isn't well drained or if it's too hard, consider adding sand to raise the bed or soil rich in organic matter to lighten it.
If rodents are a problem where you garden choose your bulbs carefully. Rodents love crocuses and tulips as well as hyacinths and blue grape muscari. Try scillas, daffodils and endymion, which rodents usually avoid.
Interplanting bulbs with a woody groundcover, such as juniper or cotoneaster, may deter small animals, and many people find that strategic plantings of crown imperial fritillaria among tulips will discourage squirrels, mice, and deer.
For a foolproof method, plant the Bulbs, top with 2 inches of soil, and cover with half-inch mesh hardware cloth, bending and securing its edges into the ground. Individual mesh baskets are also good protectors. Certain bulbs that are toxic in nature and have a foul taste can deter small animals. Gardeners plagued by animals eating their bulbs might try daffodils, alliums, chionodoxa, colchicum, fritillaria, galanthus, muscari, and scilla.
Planning your choices around the three most familiar bulb types—crocuses for early spring, then daffodils and finally tulips—assures the longest period of bloom, but beyond these basic bulbs are many opportunities for attractive interplantings. For true naturalizing, though, you want to seek types and varieties that best suit the technique.
For early spring, small bulbs such as eranthis, or winter aconite, bloom with small, yellow, buttercup-like flowers that add a delicate, frilly accent to crocuses. They're also good naturalizers; they're hardy and can thrive in shade and under trees. One warning, though: Winter aconite tends to be invasive, so you'd better love it or leave it. A less aggressive accent choice for early spring is chionodoxa, or glory-of-the-snow, which yields dwarf flower spikes of 8 to 10 azure blossoms with a white heart. Chionodoxa luciliae is one popular variety.
Choices for daffodils are many, but the Tazetta type of narcissus is good for naturalizing. Not only is this the oldest type of daffodil in cultivation, but its vigor, height (16 to 18 inches), and adaptability to sun or shade assure a bold yield. These bulbs also are good choices for gardeners in the South because they're winter hardy only to USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 9. 'Scarlet Gem' is a vivid highly fragrant variety, with rounded primrose-yellow petals and a deep orange cup.
An even better choice for naturalizing in Far South gardens is the hybrid Narcissus cyclamineus. They are strong and hardy despite their delicate appearance, and they can be planted safely far in the South. Their very early spring-flowering bulbs yield nodding blooms with backward-turned petals resembling cyclamens. They're also low-growing and make an excellent foreground planting with Tazettas. 'February Gold', with its long golden-yellow trumpets, is considered the strongest and most enduring of the cyclamineus hybrids.
Other hybrid varieties, widely adaptable and good for naturalizing, include 'Thalia', a popular orchid like daffodil with pure white flowers, and 'Trevithian', a cluster-flowering type with pale yellow petals, deep yellow trumpets, and a heady fragrance.
For Floridians and other gardeners in the Far South, the choice of spring-flowering bulbs is limited and generally chancy. Tulips are out (because they need more chilling hours than they get in warm winter climates), but Narcissus tazetta is successfully cultivated in north to central Florida. An even more widely adaptable choice for Florida naturalizers is Iris xiphium, or Spanish iris, which grows to about 2.5 inches high, usually in blue-purple with an orange blotch. It easily can cover whole yards anywhere in the state.
Part of the art of naturalizing your bulbs is to balance the formal aspects of your garden—and extend it. Where strict borders of daffodils or tulips may produce a lovely, sculpted effect, a naturalized area nearby gives an aura of carefree grace, an invitation to interact more fully with your garden than merely to observe its floral display.
Tulip companions are a must, then, to give your naturalized plantings an air of casual charm; unmixed tulip groupings are simply too stiff and formal for the wild look. The hardy wood hyacinth Hyacinthoides hispanicus, or Spanish bluebells, makes an unusual yet worthy tulip companion. Its high stalks are laden with bell-shaped blossoms in blue, pink, or white. 'Excelsior' is a hardy variety, with a subtle blue color.
Then there is camass, hardy to Zone 2, fine in sun or partial shade, amenable to lots of water during flowering, yet resistant to drought after blooming. By the time your tulips bloom, camassia's 2.5-to 3-foot-high stems are hung with delicate thin-petaled flowers in baby blue with accenting yellow stamens. Their effect softens and harmonizes with even the most vivid tulips. For naturalizing, Camassia Cusickii is the variety of choice.
As a general rule, bulbs are planted at a depth of about three times their height. But research has found that planting tulips 8 rather than 6 inches deep tends to increase their life span significantly.
Generally, you need to plant bulbs, in shade or full sun, before your area's first hard frost—September, October, or November in most areas north of the Mason-Dixon line and below the line as far south as Georgia and Arizona and in the Pacific Northwest. Further south, plant in the shade in October, November or December. Again, well-drained soil is the crucial factor, along with choosing bulbs appropriate for your area and for naturalizing. Find sites for them that showcase their wild charms, and enjoy a spring-after-spring celebration of natural gardening at its colorful best.