Q: I want to plant bulbs to bloom next spring, but the edges of my yard are in shade for part of the day. Is it worth planting bulbs if they do not get sun all day long?
A: The big bulbs like tulips, daffodils, and narcissus may bloom if they are shaded for part of the day, but not as well. The smaller bulbs—often called minor bulbs—are a different story. They will bloom for many years with only a few hours of sun each day. Some will flower for years with no direct sun at all. Especially if your shade comes from deciduous trees or bushes will you be able to plant bulbs directly under them. The bulbs will have sun because they grow their leaves before the trees leaf out. Even the flowers will have opened before the leaf canopy is dense.
When planting under a large tree, you can expect to find a dense root mass close to the trunk. It will be easier to dig holes if you stay at least three feet away from the trunk. The bulbs will grow better too, because the tree will not be stealing all the water.
For bulbs which will be growing in part shade, try crocus, chionodoxa, scilla (also called Siberian squill). The last two are similar, but chionodoxa has a white center, and its blue leans toward lavender. Scilla blooms are that true blue rarely seen in flowers. There are several other types of scilla besides Siberian, but I think that all the others are too tender to survive our winters.
If the bulbs will get little or no sun, consider erythroniums and fritillaries. Erythroniums have two big leaves which arise from the ground, followed by a leafless flower stem in the center. The hanging flowers have six petals which may be white, yellow, or pink. Again, some erythroniums which are native to warmer parts of this country may not survive. However, there are many cultivated varieties which are quite hardy.
I have had particular success with two: ‘Pagoda’ is a large-flowered yellow hybrid whose clumps expand every year in my garden. The species called “dogtooth violet” also blooms every year in the shade. It is one of the erythroniums with mottled leaves, green splashed with reddish brown, and its flowers are pink. Dogtooth violets are at least 400 years old, and their odd name comes from the bulbs, which are long and pointed.
Fritillaria flowers are shaped like bells. I grow Fritillaria meleagris, sometimes called a snake’s head fritillary or checkered lily. The flowers are a deep purple marked all over with lighter colored squares. I also have a few plants of the white variety. Only twice have I tried the three-foot-tall ‘Crown Imperial’ fritillary. Voles ate the bulbs immediately.
Bulbs of all kinds need to be in the ground within the next two weeks, so that they have time to start growing roots before winter.
Q: What kind of bulbs can I plant in my lawn?
A: Planting bulbs in a lawn is mostly a matter of what you expect from them. Since they will be competing with the dense roots of turf grass, bulb roots usually have trouble spreading wide enough to produce flowers. In other words, bulbs planted in grass probably will bloom the spring after they are planted but may not be able to repeat their display.
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If you want only a single year of bulbs in the lawn, there is no problem. Buy big bulbs, not a bag of medium-sized ones, to guarantee their flowering capacity. Any kind of bulbs should bloom; bigger flowers will be more visible than small ones.
Having so-called “naturalized” bulbs blooming in the grass, as if in a wild field in Turkey, is difficult. The leaves of any bulb must live their full lifespan if they are to build enough food in the bulb for the next year’s flowers. That means looking at floppy, then yellow, then brown leaves while they finish their work. It also means not mowing the area until the bulb leaves have died. Not many gardeners are willing to wait that long for the first mowing of the lawn.
Q: I have two new perennials that grew well this year, but I am not sure that they can live through the cold of our winter. Can you suggest ways to protect them?
A: I like to mulch all new perennials, simply because their roots are small and shallow. I assume that the insulation offered by mulch will keep the soil temperatures around the rootball slightly warmer and will therefore offer some protection. I mulch new plants no matter what their cold hardiness is supposed to be, on the principle that our winters contribute to the death of many plants. It is not that the low temperatures are particularly cold. It is much colder in Siberia. What makes plants able to live through a Siberian winter and die in ours is our frequent variations between warm and cold.
If a plant thinks that a warm afternoon means that spring is just over the horizon, it will not live through February. Afternoons that month rising to 50 degrees are guaranteed; nights to follow which fall to zero degrees also are guaranteed. A dormant plant will live; one which is starting to break dormancy will die.
The ability to stay dormant until spring truly has arrived is not listed on the tag which gives the plant’s hardiness zone. I have had plants die which are supposedly hardy in Zone 4; I have plants in my garden which are supposedly hardy only to Zone 6. In other words, any new perennial may be at risk. Taking chances is part of the gardening game.
However, there are some ways to moderate winter temperatures for a worrisome plant. If it is in a pot, the pot can be moved to an unheated building. Or the gardener can dig a hole which just fits the pot and sink the pot into the ground for the winter. That will keep the soil in the pot as warm as the whole mass of soil outside the pot.
Another way to protect a slightly tender plant is to put it inside a cage of wire or netting, and then fill the cage with insulation. Good insulating materials are straw, crumpled sheets of newspaper, evergreen boughs, and Styrofoam popcorn. The cage should be at least 18 inches in diameter and taller than the plant.
I have read about wrapping a plant in several layers of bubble wrap, but I have not tried that system.
If you own a portable cold frame, you could even erect it around the plant before the ground freezes.