Plant Now for a Carpet of Blue in the Spring

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20171003A Roger Bruce, Flickr

A spring carpet of Siberian squill in a lawn. The lawn will then go back to green all summer. Roger Bruce, Flickr

Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate to want to impress visitors with beds of large, showy bulb flowers such as tulips, narcissus and hyacinths, but still, that’s not a reason to ignore the so-called “small bulbs,” those shorter, smaller hardy bulbs that rarely attain more than 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) in height, bulbs such as crocuses, chionodoxas and grape hyacinths. They can be just as impressive as the “big guys” if you know how to use them.

That’s certainly the case with Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), a very small plant with little drooping flowers. The advantage of this plant compared to other small bulbs is that it naturalizes so well, especially in lawns. A plantation of 10 small bulbs will only take a few years to become a carpet 10 ft2 (1 m2) in diameter. Eventually the carpet can extend to cover the entire lawn with pretty but tiny violet-blue flowers.

Siberian squill multiplies readily by seed. After flowering, the seed capsules that form on the flower stem ripen quickly and soon drop their seeds to the ground. Seedlings reach blooming size by the third year, which is very fast for a bulb. You can also harvest the capsules and distribute seeds to new parts of the lawn or to fill in areas where blooming is thinner.

20171003B ListItSweden, Wikimedia Commons

The nodding flowers of Siberian squill seen close up. Photo: ListItSweden, Wikimedia Commons

Siberian squill, in spite of its name, does not come from Siberia, but rather from south-west Russia, the Caucasus and Turkey. I assume that it got its geographically inappropriate name because of a mistake in identification (so often the case in the field of botany), but I like to believe that it comes from the great resistance of this plant to “Siberian cold.” Indeed, it is firmly hardy to zone 3 and well worth trying in zone 2.

The other advantage of the Siberian squill is that it will grow almost anywhere, from full sun to fairly dense shade, in soil that is either rich or poor and acid or alkaline and in zones that are both dry and moderately moist. It will even do well in clay, something not all bulbs can stand. In fact, about the only spot where it won’t succeed is in really soggy soil, because, like almost all bulbs, Siberian squill does need to dry a at least a bit during the summer. It won’t be happy, for example, in irrigated lawns and flower beds, as they are generally overwatered.

Good Things in Small Packages

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Scilla sibirica alba has white flowers. Photo: Aha, Wikimedia Commons

Each Siberian squill bulb bears only two to four narrow leaves and one or two arched flower stems about 6 inches (15 cm) tall, each with two to five downward-facing, star-shaped violet-blue flowers. The cultivar ‘Spring Beauty’ (the most commonly available variety) differs only slightly from the species, with flowers of a more intense blue. Plus it can be slighter taller. The only other commonly available variety is S. siberica alba which has pure white flowers.

Since Siberian squill is so tiny, you really have to plant the bulbs in groups of at least 10 to obtain a noticeable effect … and 25 bulbs is even better!

Easy Care

In any well-drained soil, dig a hole about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) deep, incorporating mycorrhizal fungi and/or bulb fertilizer if you feel the soil is especially poor. Set the bulbs about 4 inches (10 cm) apart, then cover with soil and water well.

You can also plant the bulbs directly in a lawn where the plant will be pretty much unnoticeable except for the flowers, as the narrow strap-shaped green leaves masquerade as grass … and disappear anyway very soon after the plant blooms.

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To plant in a lawn, flip back a section of turf, dropping the bulbs (the photo above actually shows crocus corms) evenly into the hole, then put the turf back in place. Simple!

To do so, simply cut a cut out a chunk of turf on three sides, then flip it over on the fourth side, as in the photo above. This will give you a planting hole of about the right depth for your bulbs. Space them more or less evenly, the push the turf back into place and press it down with your foot. Finally, water well. The following spring, squills will pop up through the lawn as if it wasn’t there.

For more information on naturalizing bulbs in turf, read How to Naturalize Bulbs in a Lawn.

Siberian squill also naturalizes well in wooded areas because its flower stems just push right up through the thick carpet of leaf mold found there. And, of course, you can also grow it in a regular flower bed.

The Few Become Many

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Over time, a single bulb will form a cluster. Photo: Algirdas, Wikimedia Commons

Generally speaking, you won’t have to propagate Siberian squill: it will spread all on its own. However, if you want to see it multiply more quickly, after a few years of cultivation, you can dig up and replant the bulbs when they’re dormant (June to September). Just separate the bulbs (the original mother bulb will have produced hopdes of babies) and replant them in a suitable spot. And no, if you dig them up as soon as they go dormant (late spring/early summer), you don’t have to wait until fall until you do. Just plant them right away and get it over with!

Invasive?

Can Siberian squill be invasive? Of course! Naturalization means establishing a plant in a site in such a way that it seems to have grown there naturally and is typically done by allowing the plant to extend beyond its original planting spot.

Lovers of perfect lawns consider Siberian squill to be a weed. Not that its presence is harmful to the turf (it grows and flowers on a completely different cycle from lawn grasses, in the early spring rather than in summer and fall, so the two don’t compete), but lawn lovers prefer the appearance of a perfect green carpet over that a flowery meadow. If you’re a lawn maniac, just don’t plant squills!

Personally, I can’t get enough of flowers in my lawn and therefore greatly appreciate Siberian squill, certainly one of the very best flowers for turf.

20171003E Clayton800, pixabay

Totally green lawn = starving pollinators. Put flowers in your lawn, people! Photo: Photo: Clayton800, pixabay

Another advantage of flowering lawns is, of course, that they feed native pollinators, insects that are having a hard time these days due to the abundant use of pesticides and the dominance of asphalt, concrete and green lawns in our cities and suburbs. Plant squill and other small bulbs in your lawn and you’ll soon see the return of bees, hoverflies and other pollinators. They need early spring flowers to start their season and Siberian squill certainly seems to fill the bill!


Siberian squill: rarely does such a small plant create such an astounding effect. Get yours while you can: garden centers never seem to order enough to satisfy the demand for this tiny plant that is quickly becoming one of the biggest stars of the spring garden!20171003A Roger Bruce, Flickr

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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.

How to Naturalize Bulbs in a Lawn

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Pelouse bleueWhen I arrived to Quebec City over 40 years ago, I was stunned by the beautiful blue spring lawns seen in some older parts of the city. The blue flowers were Siberian squills (Scilla siberica) and they grew there by the thousands, mixed right in with the grasses. This was all the more surprising in that other lawns of the same neighborhoods were still in their dull brown early spring phase, that of a totally dormant lawn. Then, after the squills finish blooming, their flowers and leaves simply fade away, just as the grass begins to turn green. So the blue lawn turns into a regular green lawn and remains so for the rest of the season!

naturalized mixI promised myself that if ever I owned a lawn one day, I was going to stuff it with small spring flowers… and that’s exactly what I did. Every spring, when the snow melts, my little lawn turn into a flowery meadow. And not only in blue, but also yellow, pink and white. Note that not all these early bulbs bloom at the same time, instead there are waves of color: the same location can go from yellow to white to blue over the some 6 to 9 weeks that this early flowering lasts. It’s absolutely magical and it is, in fact, the only reason I continue to have a lawn at all.

You see, I feel lawns require a lot more maintenance than a laid-back gardener like myself really wants to put into them. So I eliminated the lawn everywhere on my property, replacing it with more self-maintaining plantations like shrubs and no-care perennials. But I’ve kept just one section of lawn: my little flowering meadow where the bulbs appear each spring. True enough, it still requires maintenance, but not as much as neighbors’ lawns, because I sowed a low maintenance lawn mix. As a result, I only need to mow a few times a year, plus I leave the grass clippings in place, so I never need to fertilizer. Therefore I can therefore consider my flower meadow to be still pretty low maintenance.

How to Naturalize Bulbs in a Lawn

plantation bulbes pelouseNaturalizing bulbs in a lawn is surprisingly easy. Simply cut a cut out a chunk of turf on three sides, then flip it over on the fourth side, as in the picture. This will give you a planting hole just about exactly the right depth for your bulbs. I actually just toss the bulbs into the hole and space them approximately with the tip of my shovel, but if you want to be precise, you’re supposed to space them about 3 times the width of the bulb and turn them right side up (with the point facing upwards). You can plant pure patches of bulbs, one sort per planting hole, but I like to mix mine, making sure to include extra-early, early and mid-season bulbs in the same spot for a longer show.

When you’ve finished placing your bulbs, drop the turf back into place, push down on it with your foot and water well. The following spring the bulbs will grow right up through the turf as if it weren’t there.

Maintaining Naturalized Bulbs
Actually, naturalized bulbs requite no maintenance. The term “naturalize” means “recreate a natural state.” You plant the bulbs and you let them go through their natural cycle, that’s all. They emerge in spring with leaves and blooms, then disappear underground as soon as the grass starts to turn green, that’s all. Most bulbs will in fact multiply in the lawn over time, by self-seeding or division. I’m sure the vast blue squill lawns I still see in old Quebec City neighborhoods probably all started with only a few dozen bulbs that since spread on their own.

Crocus tomassianus

Crocus tomassinianus spreads readlly when planted in a lawn.

Here’s another example:

My first experience with naturalizing bulbs in a lawn occurred when I was 10 years old. Having read a text on naturalizating bulbs in a one of my father’s garden catalogs, I was eager to try it, so with his permission, I planted a bag of 10 Crocus tommasinianus corms in a single spot in the vast lawn. I was pleased to death when the bulbs came up and bloomed the following spring and over the years they began to spread.

Well, that was there more than 50 years ago. My brother, who now owns the house, assures me that there are now thousands of flowers every spring and that almost one third of the lawn now turns purple in the spring! All from 10 original bulbs: isn’t nature wonderful?

Which Bulbs to Naturalize in a Lawn?

You can theoretically naturalize any hardy spring or fall flowering bulb in a lawn, but early spring bloomers are best, because they don’t interfere with lawn mowing: they are gone or nearly so (they don’t mind having the tips of their leaves clipped) by the time you need to mow your lawn.

Muscari

Mascara look great in a lawn, but you’ll have to mow around them.

Mid-season and late-season bulbs, though, cause a problem. If you plant bulbs that bloom just a bit later in the season, such as grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.) or most narcissi (Narcissus spp.), they will be in full bloom just when the grass needs its first mowing. Okay, the grape hyacinths and narcissi in a lawn are beautiful and you can simply mow around them, but that’s an extra effort. I prefer to naturalize later-blooming bulbs like these in a forest or a flowerbed, where the mower never goes, so there is no need to skirt around them and where their foliage can mature without interference.

So from my point of view, the grape hyacinths are not good bulbs for naturalization, at least in a lawn, nor are midseason or late narcissi. However, the earliest narcissi, such as ‘February Gold’, do make good bulbs for naturalizing.

Here are the best bulbs to naturalize in a lawn:

  1. Bulbocodium (Bulbocodium vernum) zone 2
  2. Crocus* (Crocus spp.) Zone 3
  3. Glory of the snow (Chionodoxa spp.) Zone 3
  4. Narcissi (early varieties) (Narcissus spp.) Zone 3
  5. Puschkinia (Puschkinia scilloides) Zone 3
  6. Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) Zone 3
  7. Spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) Zone 4
  8. Squill (Scilla spp.) Zones 2-7
  9. Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) Zone 4

*In very heavy soils (dense clay), crocuses are often not very perennial and will disappear over time. You’ll have to replenish the planting with new bulbs occasionally. In a well-drained soil, however, the crocuses are just as persistent as any other bulb.