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What spring-flowering bulbs will come back year after year?
Colorful splashes of spring-flowering bulbs in woodland gardens or strewn through lawns are worthy goals for gardeners. Here in the St. Louis region, the soil and climate are suitable for naturalizing many of the hardy bulbs. Daffodils are particularly good for naturalizing because of their perennial qualities as well as their freedom from disease and insect damage.
Other bulbs that are good choices for naturalizing include crocuses, trilliums, grape hyacinths, glory-of-the-snow, spring beauty, winter aconite, snowflakes, snowdrops, scillas and some of the tulip species. They will bloom early in the spring before deciduous trees leaf out. The early spring sunlight that dapples the woodland floor allows naturalized bulbs plenty of sunlight and time for both blooming and the ripening of foliage. The foliage must be allowed to ripen and die back because that is how the bulbs manufacture and store nutrients needed for next year's bloom.
If you are naturalizing bulbs in lawn areas, choose those that are the earliest of spring bloomers so that their foliage can ripen completely before the lawn needs mowing. Snowdrops, winter aconite, early crocuses and the earliest of the daffodils are good choices for naturalizing in lawn areas. Rock gardens may offer excellent sites for showing off plantings of small bulbs.
Another way to naturalize spring-blooming bulbs is to plant them in combination with other perennials in garden beds and borders. Plant bulbs in the same areas as hostas, peonies, daylilies or favorite wildflowers such as coneflowers. Each spring, the bulbs will flower first and then the foliage of the companion perennials will grow, hiding the bulb foliage while it matures. You also might plant bulbs in sweeps and swaths in garden beds, then plant annuals among them. When you do this, the annuals will grow and hide the maturing bulb foliage.
When the light, nutrient, drainage and other requirements of naturalized bulbs are met, they will thrive and multiply. Good drainage is a major factor in the successful culture of these bulbs. Each spring when bulb foliage begins to appear, an application of organic fertilizer such as dried cow manure will encourage good growth. Or you could use a slow-release, all-purpose manufactured fertilizer such as 5-10-10, 8-8-8 or a formulation made especially for bulbs such as 9-6-6.
Take the time to work out the general descriptions and colors of your naturalized bulb plantings. Even a few minutes with colored markers and a general diagram will help you create the desired effect, especially if you are addressing a large area. Don't mix different colors or different varieties in a given clump. The exception to this would be if you planted very early bulbs along with late-blooming types in order to have a good succession of flowering seasons.
Plan to plant in amoeba-like shapes and splashes rather than by singles or in rows. Or plant odd numbers--five, seven or nine--of bulbs in irregular clumps. The whole point is to create a casual effect as if the plants had just appeared because of a whim of nature. Avoid any hint of rows or patterns in planting.
Some gardeners toss handfuls of bulbs into the areas they wish to plant--that guarantees a random pattern. The smaller bulbs will be effective when planted in clumps placed randomly throughout the chosen area. Daffodils are effective whether planted in swaths or clumps. To see a particularly beautiful example of naturalized daffodil clumps, visit the Missouri Botanical Garden's Arboretum in Gray Summit during April.
The rule of thumb for planting bulbs is to dig the planting holes at a depth that is three times the height of the bulb. For naturalizing, you should plant them slightly deeper than that to give them the best opportunity for good growth year after year.