Opinion: Naturalized bulbs will not only brighten our spirits in winter, but they’ll also serve as a very important resource for pollinators.Opinion: Naturalized bulbs will not only brighten our spirits in winter, but they’ll also serve as a very important resource for pollinators.Read MoreThe Vancouver Sun – RSS Feed

Opinion: Naturalized bulbs will not only brighten our spirits in winter, but they’ll also serve as a very important resource for pollinators.

Naturalized displays of colchicums are in bloom right now. Photo by Minter Country Garden /jpg

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When I think about beautiful spring bulb displays, it’s not the massive riots of colour that I enjoy most; it’s the simple, naturalized plantings of smaller bulbs — those little beauties that have made their home in an old, abandoned lawn, surrounding a large tree or tucked in a wooded area among native plants and grasses.

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We all have these bulb displays in neighbourhoods and parks around us. I make a mental note of where they’re located and look forward each year to catching them at their prime from late winter into early spring.

One exception is a nearby home that, right now, has a huge display of vibrant hot pink colchicums. The swath of colour is so thick that it’s all you can see. Traffic on this street increases dramatically at this time of year as more and more folks discover this early fall treasure.

Even if you have a small garden, it’s easy to create your own naturalized plantings in lawns or garden beds to enjoy next spring. You simply need an area with well-draining soil — few, if any, bulbs like wet feet — a spot with at least some hours of sunshine and ideally, a focal point, like a unique shrub or large tree, to act as an anchor for an ever-increasingly dramatic display for years to come.

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Of the many so-called ‘mini’ bulbs, only a limited number make the cut when it comes to the persistence and resilience needed for naturalizing. Snowdrops are, perhaps, the most well-known and, once established, perform amazingly. Galanthus nivalis Elwesii, G.n. woronowii and G. Mount Everest are great single varieties that settle in nicely around trees or in lawns to multiply each year.

Depending upon the winter weather, they can start blooming anywhere between late December and mid-to-late January. Hardy to Zone 3, they will do well in quite a wide range of B.C. gardens and are usually the first bulbs to pop-up in winter. They will continue their performance for a good month or more and will look beautiful in drifts, particularly when contrasted by green grass.

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Naturalized crocuses are always a springtime delight. Photo by Minter Country Garden /jpg

In our garden, years ago, a patch of winter aconites always raced the snowdrops to be the first floral display of the year. Resembling buttercups and ever so tiny, they put on a lovely show. Although not quite as long-lasting as snowdrops, their vibrant yellow blooms stood out like a splash of sunshine during the darkest days of the year. I remember them peeking out from under brown western red cedar foliage that had dropped on the ground, and this setting really heightened their charm. Aconites are fairly hardy down to Zone 4 and can take some cold climates.

Species or snow crocuses, which are the earliest crocus to bloom, are also the best for naturalizing. These botanical jewels have smaller-sized blossoms and more subtle colouring, but late February and March would be much bleaker without them. The blues, whites, creams, soft pinks and bicolours are the most tenacious, but the Early Gold variety, a yellow-bronze bicolour, and the new, vibrant Orange Monarch are needed to help pop the colour impact.

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These little troopers will bloom in March, but once the flowers have finished, it’s very important to let all the foliage die back naturally. Don’t even think about mowing any lawns where bulbs have been naturalized until the bulb foliage has died back. This is true of all early flowering bulbs, regardless of where they’re growing. The foliage, which nourishes the bulbs and helps them multiply, must be left undisturbed until it has completely died down.

If you’re looking for some blues to fill your colour palette, grape hyacinths will do the job. Muscari armeniacums are some of the very best tiny bulbs for naturalizing. Many years ago, while visiting Keukenhof Gardens and the world’s largest spring bulb show, these bulbs were used to accent virtually every flower bed. They’re a powerhouse of colour that leaves a lasting impression.

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Today, there are many delightful varieties of grape hyacinths, from M. Grape Ice, with its snow-like cap and the white-tipped Mount Hood to the vibrant pink, M. Pink Sunrise and the pure white, M. White Magic. However, only Muscari armeniacum will naturalize and repeat its stunning drift of blue each year. It’s hardy to Zone 4.

Snowdrops naturalize beautifully across many regions of B.C. Photo by Minter Country Garden /jpg

Blue scillas, often known as Spanish squills, are bulbs that also naturalize very well. Although they appear at the tail end of minor bulb displays, they’re actually quite fabulous. Hardy to Zone 4 and growing about six inches tall, they look, for all the world, like tiny hyacinths. They also come in shades of pink and white, and they always look refreshing in April and May gardens. But the blues multiply best. For anyone looking for the famous English bluebells, Scilla nutans are still available. They’re some of the very last to bloom, often in late May into June.

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No spring garden would be complete without yellow narcissi. My personal favourites are the tiny yellow N. bulbocodium Golden Bells. These tiny jewels are, ironically, some of the latest-blooming mini narcissi, but when they do flower, they demand attention. They have hilariously large trumpets with the tiniest sepals, making them look singularly unique. This variety naturalizes more slowly, but the end result makes it ever so worthwhile.

Mini narcissi are the true workhorses in terms of naturalization. The Tete-a-Tete variety has become the standard for mini narcissus bulbs, often producing three to four blooms per bulb. I love N. February Gold with its elegant, tiny, yellow blooms. Yellow and white N. Canaliculatus and N. Minnow are also eye-catching. Naturalized white narcissi are very effective in early spring landscapes, and one of my favourites is N. Thalia. All these narcissi are rated Zone 3 or 4, and all can make spectacular displays in more northern communities.

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The last narcissi to bloom are the Poetaz varieties. Depending upon the location, they bloom in late April and early May, and varieties, like N. Geranium, Cheerfulness and Bridal Crown, have a delightful perfume. Carl Van Noort of the Van Noort Bulb Co. Ltd. mentioned that these varieties are becoming very much a part of home-based cut flower gardens.

If you prefer a massive display of yellow trumpet daffodils, the very earliest to flower is N. Rijnveld’s Early Sensation, which can often bloom in late January or February. Some of the best old reliables for naturalizing are Dutch Master, Carleton and Flower Carpet. In well-drained soils, they will continue to bloom and naturalize for years with an ever-improving display. Van Noort also stressed the importance of letting the foliage die down first before cutting it back.

Naturalized bulbs will not only brighten our spirits in late winter, but they’ll also serve as a very important resource for many of our early bees and other beneficial pollinators. If you have even a small area in your garden, why not devote a portion of it to naturalizing bulbs for a wonderful display each and every year?

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