Specialists don’t always have the right method
I’m hardly new to naturalizing bulbs in lawns. I started when I was barely 10 or 11 years old and I’m 68 now. That’s a lot of experience! So, as a child, I quickly discovered that small spring bulbs (crocuses, snowdrops, chionodoxas, smaller narcissuses, winter aconites, Grecian windflower, squills, etc.) and lawns go very well together. I experimented in my father’s lawn at first, later in my own various lawns as I moved here and there.
However, while growing bulbs in a lawn works wonderfully, it took me decades to find a way to get them there without too much trouble. Because much of what I was reading in books about naturalizing bulbs in a lawn is nonsense … starting with the oft-suggested methods of “arranging them in a natural way.”
Falling Bulbs Are a Fail!
Several specialists suggest that the best method to obtain a natural effect with bulbs is to throw them in the air and plant them where they fall. Thus they will be concentrated in places and spaced out elsewhere, as in nature.
I did this only one time. I happily tossed 150 bulbs into the air … but when planting, I only found 130. Even after searching desperately, I was only able to find another 10 of the 20 lost bulbs.
The problem, of course, is that the bulbs used for naturalizing in the lawn are so small that you easily lose track of them among the leaf blades of lawn grasses. Moreover, being round, they often roll a surprising distance. No doubt some of the bulbs lost that time went to feed the squirrels, but I also found a few the following spring … when they started to flower, lying on their side, half exposed to the elements, but with their roots digging into the ground, in a desperate effort to survive.
So, I quickly ditched that technique! No more falling bulbs! From then on, I did “planned naturalization.” I decided on a natural shape, I dug the hole … and only then did the bulbs come out of the bag for hand placement!
Tracing With a Hose
Other guides recommend tracing a natural shape on the ground with a garden hose or rope and planting the bulbs within that to create a natural look. That sounds reasonable. Except the photo that accompanied the text inevitably showed someone planting the bulbs within the guideline in a perfectly aligned quadrilateral pattern. Precise planting would spoil any such effort at naturalization, giving you a clearly artificial look.
If you do use a hose as a guide as to where to plant, at least spread the bulbs out unevenly when you do so.
300 Bulbs, 300 Holes: How Exhausting!
But the main problem with all the methods for planting the bulbs in a lawn that I saw described in the books (remember, there was no Internet back then!) is that they require too much effort … plus, they basically ruin your lawn.
These specialists inevitably suggest digging an individual hole for each bulb, but can you imagine the work involved when there are several hundred to plant? To create an interesting effect with naturalized bulbs, you can’t just plant a dozen bulbs. You need hundreds! Do you really want to make that many holes in your lawn with a bulb planter (the bulb tool that takes soil cores)? Since bulbs for naturalizing are small and planted closely together, each hole inevitably touches the next! You’ll end up with more holes than lawn!
The Bulb Planter… Too Many Holes, Too Much Effort
As for the method where you use a bulb planter to plant bulbs in the lawn, have you ever tried one? First, it’s a hand tool, so you have to get down on your hands and knees (I can just imagine some older readers groaning at the thought!) That can be very uncomfortable.
Using a bulb planter consists in pushing it down in the soil, twisting right and left as you go. In that way, you can bore to the required depth. Then you pull out a plug of earth. Next, drop the bulb in the hole and put the plug back in. Presto, you’re done! It certainly sounds easy enough.
In fact, though, the planter rarely releases the plug on its own. You need to push it free or bang the tool on the ground, with the result that the plug falls apart and you usually end up using a shovel or your hands to fill in the hole.
And after 20 or so holes, the twisting action starts to cause pain in your lower arm and elbow. Yep! Tennis elbow is under way! By 100 holes, you’re in the emergency ward! It’s just not easy to do!
I once wrote about the uselessness of bulb planters. (See The Bulb Planter: A Garden Tool You’ll Never Use.) A lot of gardeners own one, but few ever use it! I certainly never use mine!
What About Using a Dibber?
There is another bulb planting tool: the dibber (or dibble or dibbler). It’s a pointed tool: a sort of soil punch. You just place the pointed end against the soil and press down on the handle from above. It punches a hole in the ground. Then you can drop a bulb in. Well, in theory.
In practice, it’s not that simple.
First, the hole a standard dibber makes is rarely big enough. Make sure you use a bulb dibber.
Secondly, the hole the dibber makes isn’t necessarily what your bulb wants. If your garden soil is rich in clay, the dibber seriously compacts it … and bulbs loathe compacted soil. The dibber will even compact what was originally an ideal loamy soil. Bummer!
If you work with sand, on the other hand, the sides of the hole collapse as you pull the dibber out, partly filling in. So, you end up trying to enlarge the hole with the pointed end of the tool and that necessarily damages the lawn.
So, you finally get the bulb into the hole at the right depth … but there’s no soil to cover the bulb. The dibber compacted it into the bottom and sides of the hole. So, you now need to bring a bag of top soil with you to finish the planting. Then you tamp the ground with your foot, water and you’re done.
Not so bad, except …
Your formerly carpetlike green lawn now looks like moles dug 300 brown holes in it. So now you have to sow some grass and clover seed mix to fix that.
And of course, too, dibbers usually have a short handle, meaning you end up down on your knees again. I tried making a long-handled dibber by sharpening one end of an old rake handle to form a point. Then I could drill the hole standing up and drop a bulb in. Great in theory, but… I doubt if one bulb in 3 actually fell into the hole! I had to try and push it in with the dibber. Then push soil in to fill the hole. In other words, it just didn’t work.
In other words, it was yet another waste of time.
Laidback Gardener Method
Since traditional naturalization methods weren’t working for me, I ended up developing a technique of my own that I haven’t seen in any books yet!
And it couldn’t be easier! All you have to do is cut a section of sod on three sides, using a shovel, as if you wanted to remove it to replant it elsewhere, then fold that section backwards. A 1-foot (30 cm) wide hole should give you a hole big enough for about 20 to 30 small bulbs and you can vary the size of hole for variety’s sake. Lightly loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole with the shovel, add a handful of bulb fertilizer if you want (personally, I rarely do this), then place the bulbs in the hole with the pointed end up.
If you don’t have time, just toss the bulbs into the hole. They are perfectly capable of flowering if they end up on their side or even upside down.
To finish, you just have to push the sod lawn back in its original place and tamp it down a little with your feet. That leaves only a thin line as a scar, one that heals in a few days. Then water to start the bulbs growing.
Do the same elsewhere in your lawn, sometimes placing two holes close to one another, sometimes farther apart. And you can mix bulbs in some holes, but use just one type in others. Also, leave part of the lawn without bulbs … it helps to show off the rest. And that will give you a very natural look.
With this method, you can plant thousands of bulbs in just an hour, without even bending over! Now, you just have to find the budget for all those bulbs!
Lots of Internet bulb nurseries offer major reductions on bulk purchases. The more you buy, the less they cost! Check it out!
Now, relax until spring … dreaming of your future beautiful flowering lawn!
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This is great! My method is similar: stick a spade in, tilt it enough to open up a space, feed 2-3 little bulbs into the space, close ‘er up. Rinse and repeat. Quite fast, especially with two people.
Like to see a pix of your result, just curious, Thx, Mike.
I think this is the method Beverly Nichols used in ‘Down the Garden Path.’ I tried it once, with the addition of a layer of hardware cloth to keep rodents from digging my bulbs up, but I didn’t have that much success… You may have inspired me to give it another go!
I cannot tell you how happy I am to read this today!!! Last year I used the bulb planter tool and everything horrible thing you said about it is true. My wrists are still angry with me. I will be absolutely using your toupee method this year – thank you!
I love this idea! I am new to gardening, so forgive my ignorance, but: do you then mow after the plants have gone dormant after flowering? They will still spread and naturalize? Many thanks for all your advice in this blog.
Definitely giving that a try, thanks. One way to get a random distribution (and not lose 29 bulbs) is to throw a deck of cards….you can do your scalping method where each card fell
I bought an auger drill bit last year, and that works pretty well too.
I did that last year but wore myself out (and the battery pack) in short order. Oh and I had to lay down bird netting to keep the %$# gray squirrels out!