Most plants shake off winter slowly—but not spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils. Little bundles of dynamite, they explode with color, creating brilliant displays even before the last traces of snow have vanished.
Hank and Leah Christensen know all about the allure of spring bulbs. They plant them by the thousands for a blooming extravaganza that lasts April through May. The Christensens planted the first wave 10 years ago, when the couple asked friend and garden designer Marcia Ellis to landscape the spacious yard around their Victorian house in the Chicago suburb of Grayslake, Illinois. Marcia added sweeping borders in front and a fenced-off flower garden in back.
Designer Marcia says the garden was done in stages. After shrubs and perennials went in, the Christensens requested a few hundred tulips and daffodils. The next year, says Marcia, “I just handed them the catalog.” Hank and Leah add more nearly every year, with big plantings every two years. Today, more than 10,000 bulbs are tucked among groundcovers and in every available cranny between perennials. “I love the abundance,” Leah says. “It’s a pleasing chaos.”
The couple’s top tip for growing bulbs: Don’t skimp. For impact, you need at least 10 to 15 of the same variety. And don’t line up bulbs like little soldiers. Mass them in a clump, then add more to create drifts (clusters of flowers that gradually thin out toward the edges). For a longer-lasting gala, group bulbs with matching colors and sequential bloom times.
Most showy tulip hybrids rebloom for two years before their blooms start to decline. The Christensens don’t mind—they just plant anew. In a small garden, Marcia prefers understated botanical (or species) tulips, such as pinkish-mauve ‘Lilac Wonder’. They return each year and multiply. She favors hardy daffodils for the same reason. To create contrast, combine them with crocus and grape hyacinths, Marcia says. Want a big hybrid tulip with staying power? Choose a member of the Darwin group, says Boyce Tankersley, a bulb specialist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “They seem to thrive in our climate and survive the moles and voles,” he says. “I have some that are nearly 11 years old.”
The better you treat bulbs, the longer they’ll repay your investment. Don’t cut the foliage too soon; yellowing leaves power next year’s bloom. Most bulbs need sun and well-drained soil. Bulbs rot if kept wet during summer. Plant them next to dry-loving plants, such as ornamental grasses or black-eyed Susans. After 3–5 years, dig up bulbs and divide them. “It cuts down on disease and allows you to improve the soil,” Boyce says. If deer or rabbits nibble on your garden, plant bad-tasting daffodils and allium around tulips to discourage pests. To ensure bulbs arrive at the optimum planting time in the fall, place orders in the summer.
Click ahead for more photos from this garden.
Pink and white blooms complement painted finery on this 1895 home.
A wagon elevates pots of bleeding-heart and creeping phlox above a mob of ‘Pink Impression’ tulips.
‘Big Smile’, prized for its tall stems and deep yellow blooms, looks astounding in a mass, Leah Christensen says.
Pink ‘Ollioules’ has a lovely yellow base inside.
Purple flecks adorn ‘Shirley’ tulips.
Grape-and-cream 'Jackpot' tulips offer a lovely color combo.
Rose-pink edges highlight ‘Meissner Porzellan’.
‘White Emperor’ has a yellow flush, a nice complement to yellow daffodils.