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Planting Flower Bulbs for Next Spring

Alliums. Varied heights and bloom times. This group of flowering bulbs is well-adapted to dry zones and is much more diverse than the tall, purple or blue pom-pom-on-a-stick form that springs to most people’s minds. Explore the low, pale lavender, loose-headed alliums like Blue Twister; the mid-height, maroon A. atropurpureum; the foot-tall, semi-nodding A. pulchellum; or the yellow (yes, yellow!) A. moly, ‘Jeannine.’ Most alliums are hardy to Zone 5 and enjoy full sun; many make wonderful cut flowers.

Narcissus. Varied heights and bloom times. Daffodils give a good spring show whether scattered or clumped. Scout out unusual colors and varieties. Petrel does nicely in the dry West and has a lovely, subtle scent. You can get lost in the number and variety just as you can in tulips. Deer are seldom tempted by them (but if you doubt, or are plagued by smaller critters, Anna Pavord sometimes shakes many of her bulb types in a paper bag filled with cayenne pepper). If you’re bewildered by the many types – white, yellow, pink, bicolored, small, large – go for an already mixed collection.

Dwarf irises. From 4 to 6 inches tall; early spring. Swaths of these can be stunning. If you scrimp on quantity, you’ll be sorry. The Iris reticulatas and their offshoots are dependable and so early that you may have to shield them from heavier snow. Just plop a cardboard box over them, then take the box away when the sun comes back out. Their low height lets them laugh at scouring winds. Check out the stunning Harmony, the dark-purple Pauline, Purple Gem or the yellow I. bucharia. When the blooms are gone, the foliage shoots straight up about a foot before dying back, continuing to add color and texture.

Squill. Under 6 inches; spring. From the hyacinth family, scillas, or squill, add patches of tiny blue flowers in spring. Many aren’t hardy to Zone 5, but the Siberian squills are, and they have the added advantage of loving clay. They also don’t mind the shade of trees or shrubs as long as they catch some sun before the leaves come out. Check out Spring Beauty for what Pavord calls “a good bright blue.”

Camassias. From 16 inches to 3 feet tall; late spring. These tall show-stoppers come in blue or white and send star-shaped blooms up a flower spike – and they love clay. Plant around the base of a conifer or where a downspout lets out, and you’ll have trouble-free beauty. They make decent cut flowers, but pinch the bottom-most flowers on the spike as they fade. Pavord likes to mix them with old-fashioned, pheasant’s-eye-type daffodils.

Tulips. Look for new or unusual varieties at plant sales. Remember their steppe heritage: Give them good drainage and a lean soil. Pavord, whether she’s potting or planting them, mixes some gravel or grit in the bottom of a pot, places the bulb, and then often covers it with more grit as a blanket. In spring, always leave the spent foliage on as long as possible. Those leaves are sending food down into the bulb for next year’s show. If you can’t stand to see it, mulch thinly over it. Keep the taller ones out of the wind tunnels.

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