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Naturalizing Bulbs

Naturalized Narcissus in the Larsen Orchard RemnantPlanting Spring Bulbs for a Natural Look

August 2002 (Updated February 2011)

Naturalizing bulbs is a long popular planting technique used to achieve a natural effect in the landscape—as if Mother Nature herself had planted them. Virtually all of the small bulbs and many of the larger ones (i.e., daffodils, tulips) naturalize well. Instead of planting the bulbs in a formal bed or border, you scatter them in irregular groupings across an area of a meadow or woodland, in areas under deciduous trees and shrubs, at the edges of paths and walkways, or in a bed of groundcover. For the most natural effect, try not to plant bulbs in straight lines or discernible patterns.

You can plant bulbs directly in the lawn for spectacular displays in late winter and early spring. Choose bulbs where the foliage will mature and fade before the grass grows enough to require mowing. This ensures the plant will have stored all the food it needs in the underground bulb to produce next year's bloom.

It takes lots of bulbs to make a good show, but luckily, these early spring bulbs are relatively inexpensive. Some bulbs that work great with this technique are: 

  • Squill—blooms in spring with blue flowers; sometimes pink or white
  • Snowdrop—the earliest of the spring-flowering bulbs; single, white, nodding flowers
  • Chionodoxa—or Glory-of-the Snow, blooms a clear blue, often before the snow melts
  • Spring crocus—come in a variety of colors, including white, pink, lavender, purple, yellow or orange.

Large quantities of bulbs look great planted in groups of like colors (drifts) or a playful mix of colors and textures for a tapestry effect. If you're looking for a more formal display, draw out your design on the lawn with horticultural lime as a planting guide.

The traditional method of naturalizing is to scatter bulbs across the area and plant them where they fall. Alternatively, you can simply plant the bulbs at random, avoiding any resemblance to rows or patterns. In succeeding years, the bulbs will multiply and fill in the spaces.

Where only a limited number of bulbs are to be planted, you can lift the turf using a spade or sod cutter, plant the bulbs and replace the turf. If you are planting many bulbs, use a dibbler or small trowel, digging through the turf, making sure to place soil back into the hole once you plant the bulb.

Most bulbs appreciate well-drained soil and sunlight. Keep in mind, however, that bulbs that flower early in the spring will have bloomed and faded long before deciduous shrubs and trees have begun to leaf out. So think of spring-blooming bulbs much like spring wildflowers.

In a few years, your lawn will be welcome harbinger of spring, full of naturalized bulbs, and adding an additional piece of interest to your home landscape.

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