It’s been said that if you want to learn something, ask somebody who knows. Every landscape professional knows something about spring-flowering bulbs. But there’s one group of professionals who knows a great deal about bulbs, because they work with bulbs year-round and get feedback from landscapers across the country. They are the flower bulb experts who provide the bulbs that landscape crews plant.
We asked three veteran flower bulb wholesalers to share some of what they’ve learned in working with landscape professionals over the years. Each provided three interesting questions that they’ve fielded, along with thoughtful answers so that others might benefit.
Each of our experts is a top U.S. flower bulb wholesaler. Each interacts directly with both landscape pros and avid home gardeners. It’s information you can use provided by the names you know.
Following are Qs & As contributed by:
Becky Heath, president/CEO of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs; Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, CEO of Van Engelen Wholesale Flower Bulbs and John Scheepers Beauty from Bulbs; and Christian Curless, horticulturist with Colorblends Wholesale Flowerbulbs.
Becky Heath, Brent & Becky’s Bulbs
The costs of the bulbs are nothing in comparison to how much it costs to actually get them planted. Is there an easy, or at least an economical, solution?
There are several ways to plant, and the one chosen is dependent on the number of bulbs being planted as well as their ultimate location.
For 100 to 500 bulbs, perhaps digging one hole at a time is the most efficient. Be careful of tree roots if drilling holes is the method used, as arms and shoulders can be twisted and injured. A narrow, sharp spade or long-handled trowel also works well, but either way, with one person digging and the other one placing the bulb in the hole, it makes the duration of the job shorter. Then the two workers can switch jobs so one muscle group doesn’t get overworked.
For 1,000 to 10,000 bulbs, individual holes can still be dug. But if the location makes it feasible, spreading 6 inches of compost on top of the ground, placing all the bulbs on top of that recently spread compost and covering the bulbs with 6 inches more compost or mulch is certainly a quicker way of planting them. It also raises the flower bed, giving the garden better drainage, and the compost in which the bulbs are planted normally ensures their happiness.
For larger quantities, we offer a planting service where 20,000 to 30,000 bulbs can be planted in about an hour if the bulbs are being planted in turf. This planting scheme is specifically for areas where a burst of spring color is desired but the garden is not intended to continue through the rest of the year. In this situation, the turf gets mowed during the summer months after the bulb’s green leaves have matured and begin to turn yellow.
How can I keep daffodils blooming as perennials for a lot of years?
Plant them in full sun in welldrained soil.
Before planting, add compost to the soil and top dress with more compost each fall. The addition of organic matter keeps the soil healthy and enables the bulbs to absorb the nutrients they need in addition to the nutrients acquired through photosynthesis.
Wait to cut the leaves when they begin to turn yellow when the photosynthesis is finished, which usually happens about 8 to 12 weeks after they finish blooming.
Keep artificial irrigation away from the area during the bulb’s summer dormancy. Hot weather makes the soil warm; adding water to warm soil around dormant bulbs can cause some to rot.
I have a client who wants the garden to continue blooming during the growing season, from spring through fall. How can I accomplish this?
Plant in layers:
- Tulips, lilies, large alliums, camassia – 10 inches deep
- Daffodils, Hyacinthus, Hyacinthoides, Leucojum, Muscari – 6 inches deep
- Crocus, Anemones, Ipheion, Chionodoxa, Scilla – 3 inches deep
Plant companions on top of the bulbs; don’t worry, the bulbs will work their way around them.
- Hemerocallis, Echinacea, Monarda, Phlox, Achillea, Asclepias, ornamental grasses – full sun
- Lobelia, Thermopsis, groundcovers like Vinca minor, Ajuga, Lamium – part shade
- Add long blooming annuals “under the arms” of the perennials in early summer.
- Portulaca, marigolds, petunias – full sun
- Geranium, Osteospermum – part shade
- Begonia, caladium, coleus – shade
Layering the bulbs, planting perennial companions in the same bed and adding long-blooming annuals for the summer will ensure a colorful garden for most of the growing season.
Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, Van Engelen Wholesale Flower Bulbs and John Scheepers Beauty from Bulbs
I have a very particular client who wants me to recommend flower bulbs for her spring garden. I haven’t worked with flower bulbs before and I don’t know where to start. What should I do?
We’d suggest that you map out the garden beds, and determine the color palette and general ambiance the client would like for the garden: Is it more formal or informal? We usually recommend planting 80 percent of the garden with perennial flower bulbs and 20 percent with tulips and hyacinths, which will need to be planted each fall. Tulips and hyacinths have the broadest rainbow of colors available, and by replanting them every fall, you can keep the garden’s look fresh and exciting by changing their colors.
The primary perennial flower bulbs to include are narcissi, allium, fritillaria, lilies and herbaceous peonies, all of which may be planted either in clusters for a more orderly look or in drifts for a more natural look. Finally, finesse the garden with plantings of smaller bulbs like Muscari, Scilla, Chionodoxa and Anemone blanda. Tip: To help keep clients really happy, plant a cutting garden with varieties for the future and bring them spring preview bouquets before placing their fall bulb orders.
I have a terrific client who wants flower bulbs in their woods, and they want them to look like they’ve always been there. I’ve only ever planted tulips before and they have major deer issues. Are there any other bulbs that I can use?
There is a whole range of deerand rodent-resistant naturalizing flower bulbs that can be planted in drifts to sparkle in woodlands from early to late spring. In early spring, Eranthis hyemalis, the winter aconite, adorns forest floors with 4-inch-tall, bright yellow flowers, while Galanthus, the snowdrop, charms us with 6-inch-tall milky-white flowers. One of the most prolifically planted woodland dwellers is the Narcissus, usually planted in loose groups with no apparent design. Hyacinthoides non-scripta, the English bluebell, yields breathtaking seas of 18-inchtall, shimmering violet-blue flowers. Scilla, Erythronium pagoda, Geranium tuberosum and Ornithogalum nutans Silver Bells are also lovely planted in seemingly haphazard drifts. Camassia, a northwest U.S. native, is perfect in irregular drifts in the dappled sunlight of the edge of woods. In just a few years, any of these flower bulbs will appear as if they are age-old woodland inhabitants.
I have a job to plant flower bulbs at a house still under construction. There is only fill where the gardens are going to be. We don’t have the go-ahead on foundation plantings, but the homeowners want something in bloom next spring. What can I do?
This first phase should focus on laying out only the bare minimum, mandatory beds around the foundation of the front of the house. The soil must be amended so that these beds have good neutral pH garden soil, close to a sandy loam, with reliable drainage. Determine the square footage and the color palette pleasing to the homeowners. Select earlier blooming tulip bulbs and hyacinth bulbs that will create a prominent, yet economical, display, but that can be treated as annuals. You’ll need about five bulbs per square foot for a somewhat dense planting. When the flowers start to die back in the spring, they can be removed, bulb and all, so that work may proceed with any hardscape, foundation plantings and other beds.
Christian Curless, Colorblends Wholesale Flowerbulbs
I have a client who wants me to plant spring-flowering bulbs, but she has serious animal issues — both deer and rodents. What are my options?
Deer and rodents can wreak havoc on bulbs, as they can on any other type of ornamental plant. The strategies for dealing with these uninvited guests:
Plant bulbs that animals can’t or prefer not to eat. This is the easiest and most affordable option. It also means telling your client that she can’t have tulips or crocuses. So what can she have? Daffodils, first and foremost. All daffodils are toxic to mammals and will not be eaten. The same applies to other members of the amaryllis family: snowdrops (Galanthus) and snowflakes (Leucojum). Beyond that, there is a small group of bulbs that deer and rodents may sample but generally avoid: crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis), glory of the snow (Chionodoxa) and winter aconite (Eranthis), among them. Deer and rodents don’t necessarily have the same taste in bulbs. Deer, for example, steer clear of the ornamental onions (Allium), but rodents have been known to eat the bulbs.
Apply repellents. It is possible to repel deer and other above-ground animals by spraying bulb foliage and flowers with substances that smell and taste bad. Repellents must be sprayed before the plants are browsed, of course, and they must be applied often: following rain and to protect new growth and flower bulbs as they emerge. To increase effectiveness, you should rotate repellents: Deer can become used to a repellent that is used too frequently. And if the problem is burrowing rodents, such as voles, chipmunks or gophers? I know of no repellent that will protect bulbs all the way through spring and beyond.
Exclude animals from the planting site. It is not uncommon for customers to call and complain that recently planted bulbs have been unearthed and eaten. The culprits in such cases are usually squirrels, skunks or raccoons. These animals are drawn to the scent of freshly turned earth. You can thwart them by laying hardware cloth, chicken wire or heavy plastic fencing on the soil immediately after planting. Leave the deterrent in place for two to three months and then remove it. As the soil settles and rain falls, the animals will generally lose interest. Be sure to lift the deterrent before the bulbs start to grow in the spring. You don’t want the emerging foliage and flowers to become entangled in the mesh.
A competitor of mine seems to make pretty good money planting bulbs. How do I turn bulb planting into a profitable program?
For many landscape contractors, planting spring-flowering bulbs can be a good way to drive extra cash to the bottom line. Although these bulbs bloom in the spring, they are planted in the fall. The window for planting is quite wide, giving you a lot of flexibility: before fall clean-ups, in between, after, whatever. The bulbs must be planted in the fall, but as long as the ground has not frozen hard, you can get them in and they will perform beautifully in the spring. Ah, spring.
Ah, spring. That’s when your clients venture out of the house for what may be the first time in weeks or months and begin looking for color and making plans for the growing season to come. And what wakes up first? Bulbs. What provides the first real show in the landscape? Bulbs. What, in most parts of the country, provides the first sweet scent of the year? Bulbs (hyacinths in particular).
OK, so bulbs are a way to make extra money in the fall and give your clients a jump on next year’s flowering season. What’s the catch? Education. You need to order bulbs in summer or fall, plant them in fall, invoice your clients for them in fall — and have nothing to show for your efforts until spring. To do that, you have to help your clients understand the rhythm of bulbs, the advantage of thinking about spring while it’s still hot or when it’s starting to get cold, and the reward that planning ahead will provide in the spring.
So you have some selling to do. Bulb companies have catalogs and websites to help you, but you still may have to paint pretty pictures with words and push people over the hump with follow-up emails and big promises. There will be some work on the front end, but once a client sees what bulbs can do for her spirits and landscape in the spring, future sales will be easy.
I’ve always ordered tulips in single colors. I’d like to do something more interesting, but I am not an expert on bulbs and I don’t have the time to figure out which varieties look good together. Is there an easy way for me to plant the nice combinations I sometimes see in magazines?
You might want to try planting blends. Blends are coordinated mixtures of two, three or more varieties. They may bloom simultaneously for a big bang or they may bloom sequentially to provide a long run of color.
Blends come pre-mixed. There is generally no way to tell one variety in the blend from another, but that is by design. Blends are most effective when the bulbs are planted as you grab them. They have a flowing, naturalistic look that is lost when the bulbs are planted like a checkerboard. Don’t worry about which bulb is which. Just open each bag and plant the bulbs just a few inches apart. Rest assured: Your client will have a dynamite show in the spring.
Read more: Why bulbs?