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Not All Spring Bulbs Are Suited for Naturalizing

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Crocus blooming in my back lawn. Note the snow in the background. I really do get the “snowmelt bulb” effect in my lawn!

I am a big fan of naturalizing bulbs and have been doing it for years, ever since I was a kid (there are still vast carpets of spring flowers around the old family home, now belonging to my brother, that I planted 50 years ago!). Ever since, I have planted many more in the lawns in the various places where I have lived. At my current home, where I’ve planted literally thousands of bulbs over the years, the lawn starts to bloom at snow melt and continues almost 6 weeks! What a show!

Naturalizing bulbs in a lawn is easy and enjoyable and I’ve written more about it in How to Naturalize Bulbs in a Lawn. But not all spring-flowering bulbs are suitable for naturalizing, at least not in a mowed lawn. Here’s why.

They Have to Bloom Early

You should really choose the bulbs you want to naturalize in a lawn from among species that bloom early, before lawn needs mowing. Otherwise you have to mow around the bulbs in bloom, which slows you down considerably (and who wants to spend more time mowing the lawn than necessary?).

I’ve found that, under my conditions, Siberian squills (Scilla sibirica) are the latest bulbs I can get away with planting in the lawn. Even as they bloom, the lawn grasses are greening up and starting to lengthen. When the squills finish blooming, out comes my lawnmower. Any bulb that blooms later than that has no place in my lawn.

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Grape hyacinths look great in a lawn… but then you have to mow around them.

I’m thinking specifically about grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.). I’ve tried them and do confess they bloom beautifully in a lawn and create a very nice effect, but by the time they flower, the lawn is already getting pretty tall. I used to carefully mow around them at a former residence, but have since learned my lesson. I now grow muscaris only in flowerbeds and in a wooded area out back, no longer in my lawn.

Ornithogalums and alliums also bloom too late to make good lawn bulbs, as do most tulips and late-blooming narcissus.

Leaves That Outstay Their Welcome

Another necessary trait of a good lawn bulb is foliage that is either short enough to mow over or that disappears quickly. There is no problem with clipping off the leaf tips of squills, snowdrops, and crocus when you mow, but the much, much larger leaves of tulips, even the earliest ones, are still there to annoy you when the time to mow comes around and they don’t like to be mowed down before they mature. (Besides, most tulips are not persistent enough for naturalization, disappearing after just a few years: the best bulbs for naturalizing  last forever.)

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Reticulated iris looks fine in a lawn… while in bloom, but then you have to mow around its tall leaves.

The early spring iris, like reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) and Danford’s iris (Iris danfordiae), are good examples of bulbs with leaves that outstay their welcome. True enough, their flowers appear early enough and are long gone before mowing time comes around, but their leaves more than double in height after the flowers fade and then you have to awkwardly mow around them. Bummer!

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A daffodil lawn: it’s a classic element of public gardens, but not so practical in home gardens.

Daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are another example. Even the earliest blooming varieties have, for the most part, leaves that last for 2 full months (if not longer) and are tall enough they’d be cut back by half if you ran a mower over them. True enough, you’ll often see beautiful “daffodil lawns” in many public gardens, but these lawns are specifically dedicated to naturalized daffodils and are left unmowed until well into early summer. Not many home gardeners have that kind of patience.

So go ahead: do fill your lawn with early-blooming, short-leaved bulbs like crocus, squills, puschkinias, chionodoxas, snowdrops, winter aconites, and Greek anemones, but you’ll probably prefer to restrict later or taller bulbs to a flowerbed… or to naturalize them in a wooded area that you never have to mow.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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