It’s easy to naturalize flower bulbs under turf to create a bulb lawn that will put on a spectacular display each spring indefinitely with no further bulb plantings necessary. To share the history and methods behind bulb lawns, joining me this week is horticulturist Peggy Anne Montgomery.
Peggy Anne is from Minnesota and later lived in Germany and then the Netherlands, where she married a Dutchman and studied horticulture. She stayed in the Netherlands for 15 years, spending four years as an apprentice before running her own landscape design business. Since returning to the United States, she’s worked as a research horticulturist, garden writer and brand manager for the horticulture trade.
Peggy Anne says she loved studying in the Netherlands. “They’re really the forerunners in this industry. They do so much so well. They’re very innovative.”
She returned home to Minnesota to take care of her mother and got a job at Bailey Nurseries, which is headquartered in St. Paul. “It’s a great big wholesale nursery, family-owned for over a hundred years,” she says. “I love the Bailey family. We are still close, and I got to work there for 10 years. And they gave me so many opportunities in marketing and other things and to travel with the Garden Writers Association, and I met so many people and I learned so many things. That was incredible.”
After a decade with Bailey Nurseries, Peggy Anne was interested in a new challenge and got a position studying native plants at Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware, where she lives now. “It’s an incredible place,” she says of Mt. Cuba Center. “If you have never been, please put it on your list, especially in early spring. It is incomparable — the beauty, the spring ephemerals and trilliums and everything. It’s absolutely breathtaking.”
I have to echo Peggy Anne’s take on Mt. Cuba Center. I visited there to film an episode of my public television program “Growing a Greener World” and it blew me away. It’s in the Brandywine Valley and the Greater Philadelphia Area, which is known as “America’s Garden Capital” with 50 public gardens within 50 miles of each other.
“You just can’t go wrong,” Peggy Anne says. “Each one is incredibly beautiful in their own right.”
Peggy Anne took her knowledge of native plants and started working with and promoting the American Beauties Native Plants brand by NorthCreek Nurseries owner Steve Castorani of Pennsylvania and Prides Corner Farms owner Mark Sellew of Connecticut.
Her current job is with the Garden Media Group, a small boutique firm and women-owned and -run business that only does public relations for the horticulture business. It was founded by Suzi McCoy, who Peggy Anne says started marketing in horticulture — a business that just wasn’t around much before Suzi. Suzi has since retired, but Peggy Anne continues to work there with Suzi’s daughter, Katie McCoy Dubow.
Peggy Anne works with just one Garden Media Group client, Royal Anthos, which is like a trade organization for Dutch bulb growers and exporters.
“It is just so exciting that my job is to inspire and educate about bulbs, one of the things I love the most in the world,” she says. “… This is my dream job, and I feel like I’m doing the best work of my life and I’m so fortunate.”
I will always remember visiting the home garden of Peggy Anne and her husband, Dan Benarcik, a horticulturist at the botanical garden Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania, to film another episode of “Growing a Greener World.”
Before proceeding with my conversation with Peggy Anne about establishing a bulb lawn, I want to pause to remind you that I have a new book out, “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest.” It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
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The Long History of Bulb Lawns
While naturalizing bulbs in lawns is only now gaining in popularity in the United States, it is common internationally going back centuries.
Peggy Anne explains that in the mid-1600s when explorers and plant hunters went east and brought back Mediterranean and Far East flower bulbs, growing these bulbs became a status symbol.
In Friesland, in the north of the Netherlands where Peggy Anne lived, gardens where these historical bulbs are grown are called “stinzen gardens.” The name derives from an old Friesian word that means “a house built of stone, or brick.”
Only the wealthiest of people lived in stone or brick homes, and out front of these homes were bulb gardens where flowers would start blooming early in spring and continue in succession for many weeks.
“The most amazing thing is that many of them are still there,” Peggy Anne says. “So these bulbs have all been multiplying for over 400 years.”
In the springtime, it looks like it has snowed pastel colors, she says.
“Whatever you call them — stinzen gardens or bulb meadows or bulb lawns — it’s really all kind of a way to naturalize,” she adds. “And ‘naturalize’ simply means using bulbs that multiply easily and quickly. So once you plant them, you’ll get a bigger and bigger show all the time.”
An Easy Task for Gardeners New and Old
Peggy Anne notes that since the COVID pandemic started, there are 18 million new gardeners in the United States.
“My job should be to just help everybody — new gardeners, especially — be successful because we want to keep these gardeners,” she says.
A bulb lawn is a great project for new gardeners because it is a low-cost, high-reward scenario.
“There could be nothing easier,” Peggy Anne says. “This is a garden that you’re going to plant once and you’re done. You’ll never have to weed it. It will get bigger and bigger every year.”
Peggy Anne and her husband planted 1,200 bulbs in two and a half hours on the day we recorded this episode — which goes to show that bulb planting is far from an all-weekend project.
They started by mowing the turf down low and marking off the area with a garden hose (though spray paint works well too). They made sure to leave a walkway between the bulb lawn and their garden border to provide access for maintenance. Then they used a bulb auger on a drill to quickly make holes to plant bulbs.
As Dan drilled holes, Peggy Anne followed with a teaspoon of organic bulb fertilizer for each hole and a few bulbs per hole. Then she backfilled the holes with the soil that the auger kicked up. She also topped off the disturbed soil with grass seed. This is optional, but annual or perennial rye will germinate quickly and hide any signs of disturbance.
They used a variety of bulbs with different but overlapping bloom times: crocus, dwarf irises, woodland tulips, miniature daffodils, glory-of-the-snow, spring star, Siberian squill, grape hyacinth, snowdrops and winter aconites. She also recommends checkered Fritillaria, Grecian windflower, small alliums and striped squill (Puschkinia).
“Your lawn is really taking on this other dimension,” she says. “It makes it feel like spring is coming early because it’s beautiful, and all your neighbors that walk by are going to just not be able to believe what they’re seeing. And it just lends this whole other season of interest to our gardens.”
The early pops of color in late winter and early spring are so satisfying to any gardener.
“The first things that bloom in the spring are the most precious to me,” Peggy Anne says.
How Bulb Lawns Help Pollinators
When the bulbs come up in very early spring, they will be the first flowers to feed the honeybees, bumblebees and other pollinators that wake up and need to find food fast when there is very little blooming, Peggy Anne says.
One trick I have learned is that if I leave my brassicas in the ground all winter, they will attract pollinators when they bolt in early spring. The brassicas are the only thing in sight in bloom at that time and are just loaded with pollinators. But I know it’s still not enough. A bulb lawn or bulb meadow could really help these pollinators and other beneficial insects.
Peggy Anne points out that sometimes bees will sleep in crocuses that close up overnight, so early birds like her can see the little bee inside sleeping when the flowers start to open in the morning. “It’s the cutest thing in the world,” she says.
The best bulbs to choose for pollinators have a single flower per bulb because those have the easiest nectaries for insects to access.
“We just have to remember that every little bit we do is a big help,” Peggy Anne says. “A little bit is a big help, always. We don’t always have to go plant 10,000 of anything. Everybody does a little bit, we’ll get there too.”
In addition to early-flowering bulbs, consider shrubs and trees that likewise bloom early, to bridge the gaps for foraging bees.
Who Bulb Lawns Are Right For
A stinzen garden is probably not a great idea for you if you are interested in having a very manicured lawn. If you are putting down pre-emergents and you have irrigation lines running through your lawn, a stinzen garden is not a good fit. You are better off naturalizing bulbs in shrub borders and under deciduous trees — anywhere bulbs can get sun in early spring.
“Dan and I really kind of love our pollinators a little bit more than our turf so we don’t mind so much,” Peggy Anne says.
Caring for a Bulb Lawn
You don’t have to wait for the bulb foliage to be falling over dead before tidying up your bulb lawn. When the foliage turns yellow, you can begin to remove it.
The reason to leave the foliage on for as long as possible is because as long as it is green, it is collecting solar energy and converting it into energy that goes back into the bulb for next year’s bloom. However, Peggy Anne learned last year from a Cornell University professor in Ithaca, New York, that his research suggests that bulb foliage can be mowed down earlier than we thought — and the bulbs will still be A-OK.
“These small bulbs, they really are quite small and their leaves tend to wither quite quickly,” Peggy Anne says. “It would probably be the daffodils and the tulips that would take the longest. So just keep your eyes on those, and when they start to go down and start to yellow, you can mow them.”
The grass will grow just fine whether you mow down the bulb foliage or not, so for your first mow or two of spring, just cut a frame around the flowering bulbs and leave them be until the foliage has withered.
Succession Planting a Bulb Lawn
If you don’t mind having a lawn that looks unkempt from time to time, you can plant a bulb lawn with a mix of flowers that will bloom from late winter or early spring right on through summer.
“Succession planting is really kind of a fun thing to think about this winter when it’s cold outside and you’ve got your bulb catalogs,” Peggy Anne says. “Think about making your shopping list like something for early spring, something for spring, late spring, summer, late summer, fall, and do yourself a favor and spread out that flowering time so your garden is always in bloom.”
Of course, this winter it will be too late to plant spring-flowering bulbs, which get planted in fall. But it will be the right time to order summer-flowering bulbs, which are planted in spring.
If you plant only spring-flowering bulbs such as aconites, snowdrops and crocuses, you are still succession planting, because some will bloom earlier or later than others, for a constantly changing but constantly blooming bulb lawn in spring. But to extend the bloom time of the bulb lawn, you just need to add summer-flowering bulbs.
Botanical tulips and grape hyacinths will bloom later in spring, while various allium varieties will bloom anywhere from early in spring to well into fall — and alliums are pollinator magnets. Peggy Anne likes the “Purple Rain” Allium variety because the lower foliage doesn’t brown in the cold, as is the case with many tall Alliums.
Lilies, from the straight species to oriental varieties, flower at different times, so mixing varieties is an easy way to accomplish succession planting.
Fertilizing Bulb Lawns
Peggy Anne adds organic bulb fertilizer to planting holes at planting time as insurance. She has good soil with plenty of clay that holds nutrients well, but the fertilizer is added just in case.
The fertilizer contains phosphorus, which moves through soil slowly, so adding it to the bottom of the holes makes the nutrients available to the bulbs sooner. The bulbs are growing roots now and establishing themselves this winter, so it can’t hurt to make phosphorus available to them. “If you’re going to buy these bulbs and you’re going to put your time into it, make sure they’re happy,” she says.
Then, after the bulbs are finished flowering, when they are nourishing themselves again for next year’s bloom, she topdresses the lawn with an organic bulb fertilizer. The fertilizer shouldn’t be high in nitrogen because the idea is to support bud development, not to grow more green foliage.
“If you can be disciplined enough to get out there and do that, that would be terrific,” she says. “It’s only going to make your show better, faster, longer. You know, I like to eat — you got to feed your plants too.”
Bulb Lawns Vs. Deer and Rodents
Deer, rodents and other critters have a taste for certain bulbs, so if there is animal pressure affecting your landscape, it’s something to think about while choosing bulbs.
“Deer love tulips, and they’ll eat crocus too,” Peggy Anne notes. “But luckily, most of the bulbs that I mentioned today — kind of everything else in the mix besides those two — are not appealing to rodents.”
Squirrels love to dig in any soil that has recently been disturbed, so they may dig up your bulb lawn even if they don’t find the particular bulbs you used desirable to eat. But you can protect your newly planted bulbs by laying chicken wire down over the soil for a few weeks or all winter to keep them out. You can also use natural repellents such as castor oil to repel squirrels and other rodents.
Though tulips and crocuses are a favorite of deer, rodents and rabbits, if you interplant those bulbs with flowers that they really don’t like, such as daffodils, it’s much more likely that the animals will find their way to the flowers they would otherwise readily eat.
Using Bulbs as Annuals
Not every bulb you plant has to become a permanent resident. You can plant bulbs as annuals in the open spaces of your vegetable garden and shrub borders.
Some bulbs can be expensive, but many are not — especially when weighing the cost of bulbs versus the cost of annual plants from the nursery such as pansies.
Flower bulbs will love the well-cared-for soil of your vegetable garden, and when they bloom in spring, you’ll have the opportunity to take cuttings for yourself and to share with others.
“Flowers make people happy,” Peggy Anne says. “We have research from all the major colleges in the United States and universities. Just make somebody happy. Go on, plant these, fill up your garden and then just make people happy this spring. It’s the most wonderful thing you can do.”
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Peggy Anne Montgomery on bulb lawns. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you have a bulb lawn? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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