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Choosing Spring Bulbs for Flower Beds and Borders

Hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips are excellent in spring flower borders. Garden borders, no matter how formal, are less rigid than bedding out designs (where you plant lots of the same things in tight groups). In borders, you generally plant a group of ten bulbs rather than the many more used in a bedding scheme.

A jumbled combination of several different kinds of bulbs is going to look muddy and have a weaker effect than if you plant blocks of a single kind.

Here are some bulbs that look great in beds and borders:

  • Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) is a stunning addition to the perennial border. At about 3 feet (91 cm) tall, crown imperials really stand out, and the wreath of good-sized orange flowers, topped with a pineapple-like tuft of leaves, is unusual enough to really command attention. Planted singly, crown imperial is like an exclamation point. Three to five of these big bulbs make a strong statement; more is really lavish.

  • Ornamental onions, Allium species and cultivars, make a great addition to the late spring border. Shorter ones, such as Allium christophii or Allium karataviense are charming with hardy geraniums. Taller ones, such as Allium aflatunense or the Allium giganteum cultivars, are stately with larger perennials and/or ornamental grasses. Because their flowers make such a good show (and the bulbs cost a bit more than tulips and daffodils), groups of three to five make quite a nice display.

  • Hyacinths are ideal for bedding schemes. Their flowers are arranged in masses on stiff formal spikes that seem tailor-made for formal designs. With soft or deep blue, pale pink to deep red, cool white to creamy yellow to soft orange, you can create patterns or a design of geometric blocks, rhythmic curves, stripes, squares, or circles. The bulbs remain year after year, and while the spike of bloom may be somewhat smaller after the first year, it’s still enough to satisfy all except the most critical gardener.

  • Daffodils are graceful enough for borders, emphatic enough for bedding. A host of golden daffodils is a sure sign of spring, even if you never memorized Wordsworth’s poem in grade school! Choose larger, taller daffodils for bedding out; they make a more emphatic display than miniature daffodils. Although daffodils have a limited color range — yellow, white, and bicolors of yellow and white, yellow and orange, or white and orange — the difference is enough to be apparent.

    Never buy mixtures, for any purpose. Sure, buy several different kinds of daffodils, but don’t mix them within a single group. That way, you can control what’s going where rather than leaving it to random chance.

  • Tulips are simply fabulous for bedding out. With their riotous range of colors from soft pastels to jewel-tone bright, you can create a carpet of color. Generally, you plant bedding tulips in blocks or groups of a single color. The adjacent group can be a related color for a subtle effect, or strongly contrasting for a more dynamic result. Trickier is interplanting two different tulips for a color-blending effect, say a purple with a softer pink, or a yellow with a peachy apricot. The tulips can be somewhat different in height, but they absolutely must flower simultaneously. You can bed out any of the cultivated varieties (cultivars) of tulips. Avoid the original wild types, however; they just don’t work well in beds.

    Tulips flower best the first year you plant them. If you’re striving for a lavish display of bedding tulips, you’ll need to be extravagant. Discard the bulbs that have finished flowering and plant new bulbs each and every year. The method to this madness is that, every year, you get to change the colors and design to suit your fancy.

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