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Using bulbs in the layered garden

by Timber Press on December 2, 2013

in Design, Gardening

Camassia leichtlinii subsp. Suksdorfii, Cardiocrinum giganteum, and Tulipa sylvestris all play a part in David Culp’s layered garden. All photos by Rob Cardillo.

One of the easiest ways to add layers of interest to any garden is with hardy bulbs. They have beautiful (and sometimes unusual) flowers, come in a rainbow of colors, and bloom in all four seasons of the year. They range in size from 6-inch snowdrops to lilies that can tower 6 feet or more.

Galtonia candicans, with spikes of white flowers 3 feet tall in August, is a plant that should be more widely used. It does not need staking, has been hardy for me for several years, and blooms at a down time in my garden.

Early blooming bulbs can easily be planted among later blooming herbaceous perennials. Summer bulbs can be an integral part of a July border. And fall bulbs provide welcome color at this challenging time of year. Many bulbs originated in Asia and the Mediterranean region, making them well suited for my dry garden. Some can even be used in deciduous shade, since they have had their season by the time the tree canopy leafs out.

I grow dozens of genera of bulbs, and if I can be allowed a bit of anthropomorphizing, I would say that they are pretty smart critters. They grow, bloom, store up all the energy they need to replenish themselves, and pop out a few progeny—and then, when the weather gets warmer or drier than they like, they go dormant until the following year. If they could only teach other plants to do the same, my garden might not look so forlorn in times of summer drought.

I like members of the genus Colchicum because they are both beautiful and deer-proof; I plant more every year. This double-flowered variety is called ‘Waterlily’.

Since I use so many bulbs in my garden and add more all the time, I am lucky that many of them are relatively inexpensive. You can get an especially big bang for your buck with minor bulbs like scilla, and spring-blooming crocus, which if bought in bulk can cost from a nickel to a quarter each, depending on the variety. The cheaper cost allows me to make large gestures with these smaller bulbs, which I then use to justify my purchase of a coveted $50 galanthus. Special galanthus and other rarities get planted along the edge of paths and walls, where they can be more readily seen and appreciated.

I like to plant my bulbs in naturalistic drifts. Some people toss their bulbs and plant them where they land, but I need more control than that. My method is to plant three or five bulbs in a clump, then plant two outside the clump, to make it seem as the bulbs are spreading naturally. I then repeat this arrangement across the area I am trying to fill. With the exception of galanthus, many bulbs do not have to be planted as soon as we get them. Often in the fall, if we are busy trying to beat the frost, cutting plants back and preparing the garden for winter, we will plant bulbs between or after these more pressing chores.

—David Culp, The Layered Garden


Click image below to see inside this book:

Offers the perfect blend of inspiration and practical advice. Readers will come away with plenty of ideas and guidance to create their own layered, four-season gardens wherever they live.—American Gardener

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Elena Williams January 13, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Does this book give sources to purchase the unique bulbs? I need vendors.

2 Brian Ridder January 13, 2014 at 5:06 pm

Hi Elena. The book does not contain a list of places to purchase unique bulbs, however, the author is affiliated with Sunny Border Nursery, and you might start there: http://www.sunnyborder.com/

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