How to Use Bulbs to Naturalize a Garden Space

A naturalistic garden is more casual than flower beds and borders. Plants mingle together, giving the appearance of a setting that “just happened.” The intention is to provide the look of a part of a meadow or forest. The design doesn’t have to be grand and sweeping, either. For instance, you can transform a strip of lawn from turf grass to a grassland just by using ornamental grasses, bulbs, and perennials.

A naturalistic planting calls for flowering bulbs that are especially good at taking care of themselves. Informal, naturalistic gardens are intended to be lower in maintenance — none of the staking, deadheading (nipping off dead flowers), or other miscellaneous chores that occupy time in the bed or border.

When planning a naturalistic garden, remember that single-blossom flowers look more natural than double ones — and need less support, which means that you won’t have to stake the plants to keep them from keeling over. And rather than removing the spent flowers, you leave the bulb flowers alone, which is a good way for bulb flowers that go to seed (such as winter aconites and Siberian squills) to multiply themselves.

Bulbs that spread a little too well to be turned loose in a perennial border can be a good choice for naturalistic designs:

  • Grape hyacinths: Their tendency to spread far and wide can be a nuisance in more formal plantings, but the same characteristic can be excellent if they’re growing around shrubs.

  • Wood hyacinths: These multiply by seeds and offsets, which is annoying in a designed, precise planting. However, they become wonderfully luxuriant in a casual woodland.

Rock gardens are a very special kind of naturalistic garden. Not a collection of rocks, this kind of garden uses low-growing plants, usually sun-loving, that flourish among rocks in well-drained soils. Dwarf tulips and crocuses fit right in with herbs and easy-to-grow carpeting perennial plants (such as moss pink, evergreen candytuft, or basket-of-gold alyssum).

Beauty takes planning. Think of yourself as an artist who just happens to be working with plants rather than paint. Do you want a vivid picture with bright colors or something softer and romantic? If you can’t visualize just what you want, visit a nearby botanical garden or public park and see what they’re doing with bulbs.

When planning your naturalized garden, remember that gardens undergo seasonal changes:

  • Bulbs grow, flower, and go dormant: Think about what happens before and after the bulbs are in bloom, so you can team them up (called companion planting) with other kinds of plants to create the best effect.

  • Some bulbs increase and multiply over time: Expansion is fine if you have the space and want an informal, cottage garden, or naturalistic look. In limited space or in a precise, formal kind of garden, a problem results if the bulbs crowd their neighbors and blur your design.

After you decide what effect you want, sketch out the area you plan to use for your garden, indicating which flowers go where. Get a rough idea of how much space you have for your garden and how you want to use that space. Pay attention to flower heights. Also check out spreading tendencies, so you can allow space for the spread.

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