Spring bulbs in beds and borders

Our earliest American flower gardens were extremely simple and were made close to the house. Here there was protection for cherished plants and less risk of destruction by romping children, by saddled horses left to nibble grass while their owners made calls, or by cows and chickens escaped through inadequate fences. Having the garden near at hand, the housewife could at odd moments keep back encroaching weeds and supply the needs of a few sturdy ornamentals.

As the pioneers became sufficiently settled and could stretch their resources to improve the surrounding land aesthetically, they kept selected areas grass-and weed-free for the growing of decorative plants. These were the first American flower beds and borders, the prototypes of those that adorn our gardens today.

It is of such beds and borders that the beginning gardener first thinks when he considers planting bulbs to provide lavish spring colour. Such features afford the more experienced ample opportunity to exercise taste and skill in creating breath-taking effects with daffodils, hyacinths, tulips, and other bulbs.

Spring-flowering bulbs are used in two principal ways in beds and borders. They are massed alone or in combination with other spring-blooming plants in "bedding arrangements" and they are planted in groups with perennials and perhaps biennials and annuals in informal mixed borders.

Bedding arrangements are distinctly formal and are temporary. They are disassembled at the completion of the spring blooming season and the beds are then replanted with decorative summer-bloomers.

Bulbs planted in mixed borders form part of more permanent plant collections which are selected to provide long successions of bloom without the necessity for completely clearing and replanting the beds oftener than once every few years. Such plantings are much more informal than stylised bedding and because of this they often fit better into contemporary gardens.

Formal beds

Formal bedding can be used to fine advantage in enclosed gardens laid out in geometric patterns and in association with architectural features. It is suitable for bordering walks, for setting against retaining walls, for planting near formal pools, and for installing in appropriately placed lawn beds, but it is out of place in free landscapes and in naturalistic parts of the garden.

Hyacinths and tulips are the most important bedding bulbs. Planted in blocks of single colours or in patterned designs in various hues they are spectacular. Good effects may also be had with narcissuses, Spanish and Dutch irises, and, in mild climates, with ranunculuses and poppy-anemones. Such other bulbs as scillas, grape-hyacinths, crocuses, and glory-of-the-snows are of minor importance as bedding subjects but they may sometimes be employed with other spring-bloomers to produce unusual and interesting displays.

When bulbs alone are planted in a formal bed they may be of one variety, as for instance a solid bed of hyacinth "Queen of the Pinks" or of tulip "City of Haarlem." Two or more varieties of the same kind in contrasting or harmonizing colours may be used together; for example, violet-flowered tulip "The Bishop" could be planted with the soft yellow tulip "Niphetos" . . . or deep pink, blue, and white hyacinths might be used in lively mixture or in a more formal design. Lastly, more than one kind of bulb may be used in a single bed as, for example, when Spanish bluebells are used—as they can be so charmingly —with May-flowering tulips.

As the mixtures become more complex, so the need for careful thought and the exercise of good taste becomes more important. No one can go wrong with a single variety in a bed, but it is easy to blunder when different kinds of bulbs are used together. Since the single variety bed provides little opportunity for creativeness and individual expression, the mixed bed often makes more appeal. When selecting bulbs for such plantings it is important to choose kinds intended to give desired colour combinations that will surely bloom together.

But bulbs in formal beds need not be used alone. Lovely spring effects may be had by employing them in combination with such plants as English daisies, pansies, violas, arabises, aubrietas, Alyssum saxatile ( both the golden-yellowand the lemon-flowered kinds ), blue Phlox canadensis, forget-me-nots, polyanthus primroses, and wallflowers. These non-bulbous plants, set out as ground-covers beneath hyacinths, narcissuses, and tulips, can be extremely effective.

Many pleasing arrangements can be worked out, including some that involve exciting and daring colour associations as well as others that are more subtle. A bed of blue forget-me-nots interplanted with rose-pink tulip "Princess Elizabeth" is in excellent taste; so is a planting of a pale yellow tulip such as "Mrs. John T. Scheepers" with a carpeting of forget-me-nots or of blue Phlox canadensis. The rich brown tulip "Don Almo" is a fine companion for viola "Apricot." A more daring result is achieved by using glowing orange Siberian wallflowers with an almost black tulip such as "Black Eagle" or "La Tulipe Noire" .. . or by planting the brilliant red tulip "Charles Needham" among blue forget-me-nots.

Hyacinths growing among pansies of contrasting or harmonizing hues are pleasing and they can also be associated very effectively with English daisies. Deep pink hyacinths with pink daisies beneath are lovely. Pink daisies are also beautiful with pale blue hyacinths, but no more so than are white daisies with rich purple hyacinths.

Narcissuses, a little less suitable than tulips and hyacinths for formal beds, need carefully chosen companion plants to be seen at their best; polyanthus primroses are appropriate and so are pansies.

A very gay result is secured by planting mixed tulips among a variety of spring-blooming carpeting plants to form a real medley of bloom. Such a very mixed planting should occupy a fairly large bed; in small areas one or two varieties are better. It is also possible to achieve a very satisfactory result by using a single groundcover—arabis, pansies, or violas, for example—and to interplant it with hyacinths, tulips, Spanish bluebells, and Spanish irises to ensure having a succession of bulbs blooming over a long period with the same under-planting constant for all. This, again, is most appropriate for sizeable beds; many different kinds of plants in a tiny bed rarely look well.

Informal borders

Symmetrical beds filled with spring-flowering bulbs are gay and decorative but are not suitable for all locations, and they do present the necessity for summer plantings to follow. Most frequently in today's gardens spring-flowering bulbs are used informally with perennials, biennials, annuals, and summer-and fall-blooming bulbs. This makes possible a spring-to-fall succession of flowers in one border, which is completely replanted every four or five years with minor replanting in intermediate years. Such borders may be established close to the house, may extend in long sweeping curves along the edge of woodland or stream, may be planted against a background of trees or shrubs or against a hedge or wall.

When selecting bulbs for grouping in mixed borders, remember that the number needed for each patch may be relatively small if their flowers are of good size—a great deal larger if the flowers are small—that the larger the border, the bigger the groups should be. In borders of modest size, narcissuses and tulips are most impressive when planted fifteen to thirty together, small subjects such as glory-of-the-snows and crocuses in lots of fifty or more. Easy to grow bulbs of various flowering heights are readily available, so kinds may be chosen for the front of the border and for all points to the very back.

Bulbs should never be "stuck" in without particular thought just because there happen to be vacant spaces in the border. The groups should have irregular, pleasingly curved outlines rather than be square, circular, or elliptical. The bulbs should be spaced at approximately even distances within the groups but should not be in straight rows, and the groups should be spaced at irregular intervals.

Locate kinds that have long, coarse foliage such as narcissuses, Spanish bluebells, and the more leafy alliums behind perennials which will grow up and hide the unsightly yellowing bulb leaves after the flowers have passed. If annuals are to be used for colour to follow the bulbs, allow enough space between or adjacent to the bulbs to permit filling in with annual seedlings.

Many bulbs break ground surprisingly early. Even in New York City, February, and sometimes late January, finds us poking around the garden looking for the first comers. There is excitement in finding firm bundles of bulb leaves pushing through brown earth before winter has finally departed, for we know that in a month or less we shall have colourful winter aconites, snowdrops, grape-hyacinths, glory-of-the-snows, scillas, and crocuses. Snowdrops and some of the crocus species, notably Crocus Korolkowii, are among the first to pop, and how grateful we are for those first blooms!

April comes and soon the trees are misty green with tiny foliage. Early shrubs burst into flower even before they leaf. A few colourful taller perennials such as yellow doronicums and Virginia bluebells are of special value as companions for early bulbs.

Now is the time to start keeping records of flowering dates, plants that combine well, and other pertinent data that will help you plan a better border and perhaps other borders and other gardens. Continue this practice throughout the year. Wherever you live you will find tables of flowering dates invaluable —and making such lists is something that can be done in anticipation of having a garden even before actual garden work is started. Planning combinations of plants is one of the most enjoyable pleasures of gardening and is without backaches! It is of special importance in arranging mixed borders, for to do this well you must be acquainted with the flowering sequence of the plants you wish to use.

The first perennial flowers other than bulbs to appear are those of low-growing plants that are choice as groundcovers with bulbs. These include arabises, aubrietas, moss pinks, and evergreen candytuft. Although more conspicuously in bloom a month later these can be depended on to provide welcome foliage and some flower colour to accompany such early flowers as the brilliant Fosteriana tulip "Red Emperor" and the single and double early tulips. These first tulips have great value for early colour and, even though their stems are so short that underplanting is not requisite, low perennials planted to cover the ground do help to prevent their flowers from being splashed with mud in spring showers . . . and also make effective edgings. Drifts of perennials which hug the earth closely add interest and richness to the fronts of mixed borders when associated with early tulips, narcissuses, hyacinths, scillas, grape-hyacinths, snowdrops, crocuses, Iris reticulata, and other spring bulbs.

In choosing varieties of early tulips to use in the foreground of borders, the most intense colours often prove irresistible. After the dullness of winter we hunger for a crescendo of brightness—so why not satisfy that hunger? To prevent too-vibrant associations of very strong colours such as bright red and vivid yellow, use patches of white flowers or masses of green foliage as separators.

Brilliant colour used in studied sequence and perhaps repeated along the border can be exciting. On the other hand, soft pastels, which blend with the delicate colours of opening leaves and with early shrub flowers such as those of pale yellow Cornelian dogwood, lavender-pink Daphne Mezereum, blush Viburnum Carlesii, and creamy white Japanese tandromeda can be charming.

Hyacinths can be used in the border very much in the same manner as early tulips. They are stiffer and more formal in appearance and ordinarily should not be employed as freely as tulips. They offer tones of blue and purple not provided by tulips in addition to a delightful selection of pinks, reds, lavenders, soft yellows, and whites. Their stalwart spikes add interest and a variety of flower form.

Narcissuses are more permanent in borders than are hyacinths and tulips. Under favorable conditions they persist and increase. Because of this they should be placed where they need not be disturbed. Narcissuses vary greatly in form and size of flowers and in their flowering times. They do not possess the wide colour range of tulips and hyacinths. Yellows and whites predominate, with orange and subdued pinks offering occasional variation.

Despite their limited range of colour, the diversity of hues displayed within this range by the hundreds of available varieties is amazing—and what an astounding number of combinations there are! Their flower forms include those with large trumpets ( the true daffodils ) and those with trumpets so shallow that they suggest nothing so much as crinkled caps of pop bottles. The flowers are borne one to a stem or in clusters. Some are double, and some have fragrance as an added attraction.

Narcissuses are valuable not alone for their flowers but also for their clean, luxuriant foliage. This becomes something of a problem, however, for after the flowers have faded the foliage continues to grow and then needs a long period of ripening before it can be safely cut away. For this reason, place your narcissuses where their leaves will be somewhat hidden by perennial plants during late May and June.

Catalogs usually group tulip varieties to give some indication of their flowering periods, but they do not often do this with narcissuses. There is no more satisfactory way of selecting narcissuses ( and other spring-flowering bulbs too, for that matter) than to visit gardens where they are grown—those of friends and acquaintances—and public gardens that accommodate collections. Here you will find practical help as well as opportunity to note varieties best suited for your garden and combinations which have a particular appeal. Do not fail to take sufficient time out to visit other gardens.

May, in New York and places with approximately similar climates, is one of the most thrilling months of the garden year. Trees and shrubs expand their leaves with unbelievable rapidity, and flowers develop no less slowly. Throughout most of North America spring brings rapid climatic changes that speed the growth of plants. In consequence we enjoy a procession of flowers accelerated in their development to an extent that is not fully appreciated unless compared with the more leisurely growth characteristic of climates such as that of England. But, alas, our flowers do not last. The same factors that speed their coming hasten their passing. Flowering seasons may span an entire month in England and but a short two weeks here. This makes careful planning for constant garden colour a much more exacting task. Hit-or-miss planting is more likely to be unsatisfactory where the plants remain in bloom for a short season than where longer displays from individual kinds can be expected.

In mixed borders, a great number of delightful May combinations are possible, but it is best to restrict oneself to those kinds which are truly worth-while and to avoid too wide a selection. Very pleasing effects are obtained by repetition of forms and colours throughout the length of a border. Trying to include too many varieties may easily cause an objectionable spottiness. This is particularly important to remember when choosing tulips and narcissuses, which are available in such diversity that there is danger of adding more and more instead of repeating groups of a few favoured varieties and combinations. Of course if you are primarily a collector of plants, with garden design as a secondary interest, this need not apply.

Consideration of colour is of great importance in planning mixed borders. Good taste in its use is best developed by keen observation and by studying pleasing combinations. The problem of how to place spring colours in a border may be approached by locating the patches of tulips first. This is a very satisfactory procedure for working out May colour schemes. For instance, one might start at the centre of a border with white and follow through progressive shades of colour such as pastel pink, deeper pink, rose, lavender, mauve, lilac, red to purple or deep maroon—using the same sequence in either direction from the centre. Many other colour progressions can be worked out.

They lend rhythm and balance to border design. Perennials, and bulbs other than tulips, which flower at the same time may then be fitted in to harmonize with the basic colour line—starting with the low perennials that are so effective for foreground and underplanting and continuing with taller kinds.

Ajuga, alyssum, snow-in-summer, candytuft, sweet woodruff, Phlox canadensis and Aethionema are low perennials valuable for association with the May-flowering bulbs. Among biennials ( plants which flower from seed sown the previous year) are violas, pansies, forget-me-nots, English daisies, and Siberian wallflowers. Several of the most popular tulips have petal bases of contrasting colour which can be pleasantly matched with the colour of low perennials. Scarlet "Marshal Haig" with pale yellow Alyssum saxatile citrinum and cardinal red "City of Haarlem" with blue forget-me-not are examples.

Of taller-growing perennials colourful in May, bleeding heart (Dicentra spectabilis) is one of the best loved. Its graceful branches hang thickly with delicately formed pink flowers—a beautiful background for groups of carefully chosen tulips or Spanish bluebells. The early bearded irises come in May too—and what a wealth of colours are offered by firms which specialize in these aristocrats! The old-fashioned globeflower (Trollius) is not to be overlooked. Columbine and blue flax are musts for any spring border, and the earliest day-lilies can be counted on to flower before the first of June.

Tulips of Darwin, Breeder, and Cottage varieties are sometimes grouped together in catalogue, with other tulips that bloom in May listed separately because of their more distinct characters. Parrot tulips are the most fantastic of these. They have fancy petals that are slashed, fringed, crinkled, and marked so that they resemble coloured feathers. Their value in a mixed border is limited to providing additional interest and variety—and, as the stems of nearly all parrot varieties have a tendency to weakness, inconspicuous staking is generally necessary.

The lily-flowering tulips have reflexed, pointed petals and add a note of gaiety and casualness to border plantings. Double, peony-flowered varieties are suitable for patches of colour in the border foreground. Species or botanical tulips may be used advantageously at the fronts of mixed borders. Among the best for this purpose are Tulipa Clusiana, T. Kaufmanniana, T. Greigii, and T. Fosteriana.

Bulbous irises of the Spanish, Dutch, and ( less frequently offered) English types are very different from ordinary garden ( rhizomatous ) kinds. They grow from deeply planted bulbs exactly as do tulips, and they are just as easy to care for. They do not produce great masses of foliage like the bearded, Japanese, and Siberian irises.

Their stems are wiry and stand up well. Each supports a solitary, fragrant flower three to four inches in diameter. The flowers range in colour from white through cream to deep yellow and from pale blue to deep purple. They bloom slightly later than the tulips and may be grouped in exactly the same fashion in the border. These irises are somewhat more tender than tulips. In the north they need a sheltered location and heavy winter protection.

Stately foxtail-lilies (Eremurus) come into bloom before roses herald the arrival of June. These are magnificent accent plants for planting in twos or threes at the rear of the border. Set them where they will not be disturbed. Their multiflowered spires of white-, of pink-, and of yellow-toned blooms may attain heights up to eight or nine feet. They are really conversation pieces.

The bulbs discussed on this page are the chief border bulbs of spring. There are a few others such as Allium zebdanense for the front and Allium Rosenbachianum for spaces toward the rear of the border. Clumps of summer snowflakes as well as masses of smaller grape-hyacinths, crocuses, snowdrops, and other small bulbs may be included in the foreground.

If the area is shaded, use quantities of Spanish bluebells in blue and white. Camassias, and all the more robust bulbs recommended on a different page for the woodland garden, are other possibilities.

Planting and culture in beds and borders

When making mass plantings, prepare the ground thoroughly to a depth of at least a foot and preferably eighteen inches. Fork quantities of rich organic matter—compost, leafmold, humus, peatmoss, or old well-rotted manure—into the undersoil. If you use manure, make sure it is far enough below the bulbs to be out of contact with them. Enrich the upper earth by mixing with it organic matter ( but not manure) as well as bone meal and a complete fertilizer.

You may plant in one of two ways. One method is to excavate the entire bed to the depth at which the bulbs are to be set, prepare the undersoil, level it, tread it moderately firmly, set the bulbs evenly and at appropriate distances apart, and cover to grade with enriched topsoil.

The other method is simply to plant each bulb with a trowel in soil that has been well prepared without excavating. In either case, when planting is completed make the soil moderately firm by treading it ( when it is fairly dry, not when it is wet enough to stick to your shoes) and rake the surface level. The excavation method gives assurance that the soil is prepared uniformly, that organic matter is well beneath the bulbs, and that the bulbs are at an even depth—all important factors to ensure uniform height at flowering time. The other method involves less labour and is entirely satisfactory provided particular care is taken to set all bulbs of the same kind at uniform depth.

When planting bulbs in mixed borders, prepare the soil as thoroughly as for massed plantings in beds. There is no need to follow the excavation plan of planting; careful trowel work will do the trick and will give results uniform enough for borders, where slight variations in height normally add to rather than detract from the charm of the resulting picture.

In cold climates, bulbs planted in beds and borders are "put to bed" at the beginning of winter by covering them with salt hay, leaves, branches of evergreens, or some similar protection that admits air fairly freely. This protection should not be applied until the top inch or two of soil has frozen; otherwise mice may be attracted to the bulbs. Then begins the long wait for spring. The gardener relaxes in full knowledge that below ground busy roots are threading through unfrozen soil and are becoming well established to nurture future bloom. When severest winter weather has passed, the covering is gradually removed. This must be done before the new shoots become long and weak.

At the end of their flowering season, bulbs in formal beds are usually replaced with temporary plantings that provide a long season of summer bloom. Lantanas, heliotropes, fuchsias, dwarf dahlias, petunias, verbenas, and marigolds are popular for this purpose. Before these summer flowers are planted, the bulbs are ordinarily lifted and stored. That is the preferred practice. You may, however, leave the bulbs undisturbed and sow over them such shallow-rooted annuals as portulaca, sweet alyssum, and California poppies for summer display.

Spring bulbs in formal beds are usually lifted after flowering, but in mixed borders it is practicable to leave them in the ground year after year—lifting them only when they become so crowded that division is necessary or when the entire border is being remade. Some specialists recommend taking tulips up each year—even when they are part of a mixed planting—to store them until it is time for fall planting, but this is not necessary. If the bulbs are to be lifted, they may be segregated in the border by planting them in easily made baskets of half-inch wire mesh which facilitates lifting and, incidentally, offers protection against rodents.

Before the bulbs are stored, they must be completely ripened. Their foliage and stems must have died naturally. If this stage has not been reached when it is time to set the summer plants, carefully dig the bulbs with a spading fork —taking care to preserve both tops and roots ( leaving as much soil attached as possible)—and plant them closely together in shallow trenches with their stems and leaves above ground. Select an out-of-the-way spot in light shade for this purpose. There keep them watered and leave them until the tops are entirely brown and withered.

Once ripening is complete, clean the soil, old roots, broken skin, and other debris from the bulbs and dust them with sulphur. Place them in a cool, dry, shaded place, either suspending them in well-ventilated paper bags or old nylon stockings, or spreading them in shallow layers on wire mesh. Let them remain there until fall planting time. These old bulbs, whether left in the ground or stored through the summer, will not bloom as evenly as new ones. Their flowers will vary in size and length of stem. In formal beds it is better to use new bulbs each year. Bulbs previously used may be planted with good effect in less formal areas and in the cutting garden.

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