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Layering Bulbs - Getting the most bloom in a small garden

Many of us think of spring tulips and daffodils when we talk about bulbs but there are different types that bloom for most of the summer. The gardener with limited space can take advantage of the special attributes of bulbs that require little room for root space, take up little space above ground as they mostly grow straight up rather than spread sideways and have foliage that dies back after blooming. Layering is the perfect way to maximize the flowering potential of a small garden. In a hole as little as 18" wide by 12"-14" deep, you can get a wonderful display of bloom from early spring until well into August.

Start by choosing bulbs carefully, the bigger the bulb the larger the blooms is a good rule-of-thumb when purchasing bulbs. There are basically four main "layers" of bulbs that work particularly well for this method of planting:

  • Lilium (including the Asiatics, Trumpets and Orientals)
  • Narcissi and Allium
  • Tulips
  • Muscari, Scilla, Iris reticulata, Crocus (the smallest, earliest blooming bulbs).

Any layer can be left out and the scheme still works quite well. Larger areas can also be planted using this method of layering types of bulbs. Within a layer you can vary the bulbs, putting 2-3 Asiatic lilies with a couple of Oriental ones, thus extending the the final blooming time. Early and late blooming tulips also work well this way. It is recommended that you choose one type of early bloomer and one late one, rather than mixing too many variations.

To determine quantities to buy there are a few points to consider. The more intensely you plant, the more blooms you will have next spring. As well, though, bulbs like narcissi will form offsets and will need dividing sooner if planted extremely close together. In a hole about 18" wide, about 4-5 lilies, 3-5 daffodils or 2-3 alliums (or a combination of the two), 5-7 tulips, and 20 or so small bulbs would be adequate. Again, size of the bulbs comes into play here as daffodils that are top size can be very large indeed and can have so many offsets that you would have a tough time fitting 5 in a hole this size.

There are two points about colour selection worth mentioning. First of all working with an organized colour scheme for bulbs blooming at the same time helps bring continuity to a small garden where lots of different colours can make the eye jump around and give a chaotic feeling to the space. On the other hand, bear in mind that different bulbs will be in bloom at different times so that the bright cheery yellow tulips in May will never see the the deep pink Oriental lilies in August.

The first step in the garden is to find a space about 16-18" wide. Often just such a bare spot is evident between perennials during the summer. Come bulb planting season, though, the flower garden can look pretty barren and it can be hard to recall where the perennials of summer were once in full bloom. A little pre-planning can help in this situation. One gardener we know, surveys her garden throughout the summer and when she sees a "hole" in the bed, she puts in a marker stick to remind herself that this is where she wants to layer-up her bulbs. Since the goal is to have something in bloom from the first crocus of spring through June Allium and August Oriental lilies, the spot really does have to be empty of other plants to begin with.

Step 1 Dig a deep hole at least 12" but 14" is better and about 16-18" wide. This can, of course, vary according to the space you are trying to fill. Think of it as an "infill project" much like architects design in existing residential areas where there is a vacant lot.

Step 2 Remove the soil and mix it with a good quantity of compost (a shovelful or two) and a couple handfuls of a bulb booster. Set soil mixture aside.

Step 3 In the bottom of the hole, place about 2-3" of course sand. This will provide good drainage for the bulbs.

Step 4 Next fill in about 2-3" of the soil mixture.

Step 5 Now you can start to plant. Lilies go in the deepest. You might fit 4-6 or even more in the hole, depending on their size and that of the hole. They bloom last, from late June for the Asiatics, July for the Trumpets to August for the Orientals (depending on your location and summer conditions). Cover with about 2" of good soil mix.

Step 6
Next plant daffodils and alliums. Basically you try to fit them in around the bulbs below but don't worry too much as they will find their way to the surface around other bulbs planted above them. Again cover with 2" of good soil.

Step 7-9 Continue with tulips and soil and finally the smallest bulbs that are also the earliest blooming, the Iris reticulata, crocus, etc. Finally cover with the last of the soil for about 2 more inches above the last bulbs.

After the blooms have faded, be sure to let the foliage die back on its own as this is how bulbs replenish themselves for next year's flowers.

Don't worry that bulbs like tulips might be planted a little deeper than they would be if you just planted them on their own. The extra coverage will provide better protection from any freeze-thaw problems in winter and the worst that will happen is they might bloom a week later than your neighbour's tulips. You'll already have enjoyed the first crocus of spring and the same spot will continue to provide beautiful blooms right through the summer.

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