How to Select Bulbs for a Spring Cutting Garden | PITH + VIGOR

Rochelle Greayer

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9/10/2020

How to Select Bulbs for a Spring Cutting Garden

The floor of my office is a literal mine field.

One wrong step could mean death… to a future flower.

There are thousands of little color bombs stacked in piles everywhere. An arsenal, waiting to be deployed.

If I don’t get digging soon, one of us (either the dog or I) is going to accidentally smoosh something and last thing I want to do is prematurely pre-empt this powder-keg of potential.

Ok, I’ll stop with the munitions metaphors…

But seriously, the last time I planted this many bulbs was back in my commercial property landscape management days. My building manager clients religiously requested precisely two installations of spring blooms to be installed in front of their fancy office buildings. The first, just in time for Easter, and the second, exactly 3 weeks later as a follow-up.

And then they wanted them all gone – to make way for the pansies.

allium bulbs - how to plant a spring bulb cutting garden

The thing is, bulbs don’t really work how most property managers think they do. Making all those blooms ready just in time for ‘Spring Install #1’ and then again for ‘Spring Install #2’ requires some serious feats of horticulture.

Those bulbs were all ‘forced’ (meaning that they were planted in pots with some dirt, and chilled in large refrigerated warehouses so that their whole lifecycle could be precisely controlled for my precisely timed plantings). They go into the ground in pots, and they come out in those same pots, the hole is re-filled with another pot, and a few weeks later those come out too. And then pansies.

The whole process is expensive and kind of insane. Insane, because on the industrial levels that we were doing it, it requires huge amounts of resources to maintain OCD levels of control over something that mother nature will do cheaper, faster and better. No joke – working with Mother Nature will allow you to achieve that supposedly impossible trifecta – if you just make a plan to work with her rather than trying to supersede her.

So how do you escape the insanity and get cheaper, easier and better blooms?

First – realize this – forced bulbs that are in bloom in the spring come in in about 5 flavors…. big yellow and little yellow daffodils, red and yellow tulips and maybe a pink tulip (if you’re lucky). They are good in a pinch; if you need a last minute gift, or a quick hit of holiday cheer these are perfect options. But isn’t the most exciting market and it relies on you not thinking ahead and not realizing that you can do so much better for less if you start in the fall.

**Also – you should know – If you see potted bulbs in bloom in a store in the spring, they are forced and they will cost you at least 10 times more than what you would pay in fall. The trade off is this – last minute vs think ahead; or DIY and vast selection at a cheaper price vs done for you, no selection and expensive. There is a place for both, but I know many of you will prefer to former to the later.

Why the expense?

Because you are paying for all sorts of crazy things – like cooler fuel to put them into the cold cycle dormancy they require, the labor of the people to move them in and out of freezers, plastic pots and dirt, and the expense of assembling all that and moving it around so you can buy it at a store. Madness!

I’d like to invite you to, instead, dip a toe into into the vast world of fall planted bulbs (aka spring color bombs). When you arrive in this magical corner of horticulture land, you might feel a little like Charlie sliding into the Wonka Factory and you will quickly find that there is much more to candyland than just M&M’s.

 how to plan and plant a spring bulb cutting garden - by pith + VIGOR
I’m dreaming of magical spring flower arrangements!

As a first timer, there is a good chance you’ll get a little overwhelmed by the vast choice of blooms and bulbs and find it hard to narrow down a selection that will create something amazing.

So, as I am creating my own spring cutting garden this year, I have written down some tips to help you choose your own bulbs. The goal here is help you to grow the best materials to make beautiful spring floral arrangements for your home while also creating a pretty display in your garden.

The first thing you need to know – the bulbs have to be planted in the fall.

This is definitely a delayed reaction sort of thing. But good things come to those who wait, right? (actually I find that to be a particularly dumb cliche – it’s more like good thing come to those who think and plan ahead – smart gardeners think ahead, and waiting for waitings sake is pretty harebrained).

But speaking of harebrained… Am I the only one who can’t keep track (in her head) of what plants she’s planted? Especially if you bury them, and then have to wait 6 months before you get a reminder that they are even there?

I suggest a spreadsheet. You can use the one I’ve created for my own bulb cutting garden project – it is here – just save it as a copy and then you can edit it to fill in your own choices.

A planning worksheet for planning a spring bulb cutting garden

The bulbs need to get in the ground before it freezes where you live.

This is really a practical matter – it isn’t that you’ve missed out on anything if the first frost happens before you get them dug in – it is just that the ground can get a little hard if you wait to long – you can’t work with if it is frozen.

The bulbs just need a cold cycle of at least a few weeks to trigger them into a bloom cycle – so if you don’t live in a place where mother nature takes care of the refrigeration – then you will have to take matters into your own hands – (that’s right, pop ’em in the fridge right next to the OJ. Pull them out when you next clean out the veggie bin – then you should be good to go).

My goal as I started to plan my own spring cutting garden was to choose bulbs that will give me a dreamy spring flurry of blooms that will make for the most amazing flower arrangements as well as a garden full of flowers with all sorts of interest and nuanced details.

There are 4 things I consider most important when planning a bulb focussed cutting garden – Length, Longevity, Color and Culture.

(TBH – these 4 considerations are pretty universal cutting garden considerations, not just for bulbs).

Bulb Stem Length

If you plan to cut the flowers from your garden, you’re going to want to know that they will grow with stems long enough to allow you to make a nice floral arrangement.

While it is certainly possible to make short and tiny arrangements from bulbs like grape hyacinths, crocus, chionodoxa, squill, or lily of the valley, these short stemmed plants are going to be very limiting and harder to use.

For more floral appropriate options, stick with varieties that have stems that are at least 10 inches in length. You can always cut things down in size, but you can’t make them longer.

Some good options for longer stemmed bulbs are tulips, daffodils, allium, gladiolus, and a huge variety of lilies.

Longevity

Not all bulbs bloom at the same time. And most bulbs actually have a pretty short blooming window.

Pay attention to bloom times when shopping. Most bulbs won’t last more than a few weeks, so in order to always have something available for cutting you need to be strategic.

If you take a look at my Bulb Cutting Garden Spread Sheet (above), you can see I always have at least two colors and two types of flowers blooming at a time. I start with early spring and then move all the way through mid spring, late spring, early summer, mid summer, and late summer.

(ok, okay – so, I don’t technically have two bulbs blooming in mid-late summer… but I have lots of other non-bulb flowers in my garden that are blooming at that time… so I’m feeling pretty good about that…).

All bulb catalogs will tell you when a particular choice will bloom – spring is broken down into three seasons and so is summer (early, mid and late for each) – make sure you have something blooming in all six of them.

Color

As a garden designer, I can promise you that the best garden planners always create some limitations of color in their designs. They don’t do the full spectrum rainbow in one eyeshot. Too many things going on at once will always feel messy, disorganized, and chaotic. No one needs more chaos.

The easiest way to keep a garden looking like a chic stylish person created it, is to limit your color palette.

Less is more and you need to give yourself some crash barriers – try and keep the colors to 2 or 3 at a time. The floral arrangements that you create from your garden will come together easier as will your planting plans.

And if you are super obsessed with all the colors – think about your view lines. Keep sets of colors together – so if you are in one area of you garden, and you can’t see another area – then maybe there is an opportunity to play with a different mix of colors. Or, maybe you can use color to blend one area into the next. (for example, the front yard is yellow, purple and pink, and then as you move around the house into the side yard, it morphs to yellow, orange and red where the yellow connects them visually).

Daffodils come in shades of white to yellow to orange-yellow to peach. Tulips come in every color of the rainbow (except blue). Allium is mostly purple, blue-ish, pink and white. Lilies and gladiolas can be as wide ranging as the tulips.

For my plan, I am sticking with yellows that fade into soft shades of cream and I am mixing them with purples – but I’m letting shades of pink weave their way in and out of my scheme too.

The only time I would think that color considerations aren’t as important is if you are dedicating a utility area of your garden to cut flowers. Then you can just do rows and rows of things that you want to use use in your floral designs but I think this isn’t typically how most people do it (unless you are endeavoring to become a more serious flower farmerand even then, your future line of flower products needs to be in colors that work together)

My cutting garden will be part of the rest of my garden – it is like an overlay on the existing design. I suspect yours will be the same, so you need to think about how to intersperse the bulbs with all the other plants you are growing (I’ll talk more about how to do this in an upcoming post).

Here is my bottom line – if I am growing for myself, then I want to get the most out of my efforts – I want to tickle two feet with one feather. My cutting garden is embedded in the rest of my garden – giving me the best of both worlds – utility while also elevating everything else that I already have.

Which brings me to my last consideration…

Culture

As with all plants, you need to make sure you plant things that suit your site and their surroundings. That means choosing bulbs that are hardy in your growing zone and it also means that you give them proper growing conditions.

It is worth noting that most spring and even summer bulbs tend to spring from the earth and do all their magic before the vast majority of other perennials really get growing. The spring bloomers also tend to outpace the leaves on the trees (at least where I live) – so keep in mind that spots that aren’t really sunny at other times of the summer, might actually have more than enough light in the spring.

The other consideration to pay attention to is what is going to come in later – after the bulb is done blooming. Yes, we all like to try and achieve ‘succession’ planting (that perfect fade from one set of seasonal blooms to another is the gardener’s holy grail) but it is also worth considering that lots of bulbs don’t look so great once the flowers are gone and the foliage starts to die back.

And you must let it die back completely! – (because obsessively cutting it off prematurely will steal its ability to gather vigor back into the bulb to support future blooms). The best you can do is know that many bulbs kinda tend to die ugly. Surround them with something that will be growing pretty to hide them as they go down.

allium and byzantinus gladiolas by clive nichols
Gladiolus communis ssp Byzanthinus with Giant Alliums by Clive Nichols via Gardenia

I ADORE this garden shot – (and I am planting something similar). Grasses, day-lilies, and masses of other perennials are your best option to plant alongside spring and early to mid summer bulbs so that you get the bulb blooms but don’t notice the after-bloom dregs hiding in all the other plants.

Have questions about designing a bulb cutting garden? Ask in the comments, I’ll be happy to help.

xo

-Rochelle

p.s. Here is one really good reason to buy forced spring bulbs – and that is when you are in a panic. Like when you need something nice to distract from something less nice. Maybe pick up a pot while purchasing lettuce for that lame salad you were assigned by your MIL for easter dinner (and you know it will not live up). Cheery forced daffodils are really good for emergency skid greasing.

p.p.s If you are wondering that happened to all those truckloads of forced bulbs…Lesser (or, perhaps, more sane) landscapers might have just dumped all of it, but I always found forever homes for all those bulbs (donated some, many planted in my garden and friends). (If you are patient and wait a couple growing cycles/ years, forced bulbs do actually recover and bloom again in a normal way. You just need to plant them in a normal garden and let them rest and get back to their normal seasonal selves).

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 how to plan and plant a spring bulb cutting garden - by pith + VIGOR
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