In Chicago, where I grew up, tulips were pretty much the only thing that kept us going through the winter. You can survive snow, and you can survive ice, and you can even survive the razor winds that blow in from the lake to rub your face raw, if you know that one day you will look out a window and see a clump of tulips, their swan necks improbably supporting the weight of their fat flowers.
But it can be daunting, in the autumn, to figure out how precisely to make tulips happen. Which varieties to plant? What about crocuses? In the mild climate of Northern California where I live now, should I plant daffodils instead? And how do I gracefully make room in the garden for flowers that bloom briefly before saddling me with sad, withering foliage that I'm not supposed to cut back for weeks?
For advice, I phoned bulb grower Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens in Michigan. He grows and sells hundreds of hardy and rare, vintage varieties of tulips, daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, bluebells, and other bulbs.
"I don't know where to start," I said to him.
"Start small," he suggested.
Here are 10 steps to plan a spring bulb garden:
Photography by Michelle Slatalla except where noted.
Know Your Hardiness Zone
Above: Map via USDA Plant Hardiness.
The US Department of Agriculture has developed a map of hardiness zones to help you choose plants that will survive in the climate of your geographic area. Check your USDA hardiness zone by entering your zip code at USDA Plant Hardiness Map; purchase bulbs that are rated for your zone. You can search for bulbs for your zone with the Heirloom Bulb Finder at Old House Gardens.
2. Go outdoors and assess your own personal micro-climate: does your garden have sunny spots and well-drained soil? That's where most bulbs grow best.
3. While you're looking at your garden, imagine clumps of bulbs, planted in clusters of five or more of a single variety; that's how they look best.
4. Start small: aim to fill a few holes with bulbs rather than trying to make the whole garden look like a field in Holland.
5. If you want to use a fence as a visual backdrop, plant bulbs in narrow, curving clusters that run parallel to the fence. "This is a trick I learned from Gertrude Jekyll," says Kunst. "Rather than planting a big, round circle that's three feet wide, make a gentle curve that's about 18 inches wide. The bulbs will be in your line of vision when they bloom, and after they go over, other plants behind and in front will hide the yellow foliage."
6. When deciding where to place bulbs, take size guidelines with a grain of salt. Heights of the same variety of bulb can vary from one year to the next, and in different growing zones. "It's OK to mix up heights," says Kunst. "It looks less garden-y than if you try to put all the tall ones in the back and all the short ones in the front."
7. You can plant bulbs close together in one big hole, but don't let them touch. "They look more naturalistic if you plant them close together," says Kunst.
8. Tulips in most parts of the US will not return as well as other bulbs year after year; older varieties of tulips will return more reliably than new ones. "Tulips like super sandy soil and summers that are quite dry," says Kunst. "If you plant them in a spot that's going to be watered regularly over the summer, dig them up and store them until fall."
9. Good companion plants to take center stage as bulbs finish blooming: day lilies and peonies and self-sowing annuals such as larkspur ("it has nice ferny leaves to distract the eyes from bulbs' dying foliage," says Kunst).
10. To make room to plant bulbs, pull out or trim back existing plantings. "The best gardeners have a ruthless streak," says Kunst. "If you're not willing to throw things awayâ€”or give them awayâ€”then you eventually are going to be overwhelmed by all that stuff that keeps burgeoning in the garden."
Above: Following Kunst's guidelines, I learned most tulips don't like my warm climate.
Above: Daffodil Erlicheer; photograph by Richard Jolley via Flickr.
So instead I ordered bulbs of two unusual scented daffodilsâ€”Admiration (10 bulbs for $28) and Erlicheer (10 for $28)â€”to my back garden. They're both old-fashioned flowers introduced in the early 20th century and both have clusters of flowers on a single stem.
Above: Pearl Double Tuberose; photograph by Olaf via Flickr.
After drawing a quick sketch of my back garden, I saw a few more empty spots I can fill, so I also ordered scented Pearl Double Tuberose, a Victorian favorite discovered in 1870 (10 bulbs for $32) and perfumed Antique Freesia for spring planting (10 bulbs for $40). From the sketch, I discovered I'll have a big hole in the garden behind an oakleaf hydrangea; I ordered some tall Formosa Lilies (which grow as tall as 7 feet); five for $54.
Above: I also wanted to order some shorter-stemmed, scented Early Pearl daffodils (25 bulbs for $66) to plant in clumps in the front garden, at the edge of the path that connects the driveway to the front door.
"Do I need to draw a garden plan for the path?" I asked Kunst.
"Most gardeners don'tâ€”we fly by the seat of the pants," says Kunst. "And it works out fine."