It's a bittersweet moment when you have to brace yourself to pull out all that lush summer growth, knowing that the replacements will inevitably look puny by comparison. I've just grappled with yards of overly – exuberant sweet potato vine, cutting back its long chartreuse tendrils of heart shaped leaves, digging deep in the containers to find the funky purple tubers. Some leaves were scorched by unseasonably late hot sun, others were limp from chilly nights. They would look reasonable for another week or so but my own schedule dictated that today was The Day for changing out the pots.
Ironically containers planted for fall and winter have to provide us with almost 8 months of color (late September to mid- May) as opposed to summer pots which strut their stuff from May until Mid-September (or late October if you're a procrastinator). So how can we get a serious color punch without our favorite summer annuals?
Spring bulbs are the answer. By tucking them into containers as you are planting pots this fall you are burying treasure which will be revealed in a few months' time.
Although most bulbs need 6 or more hours of direct sun to bloom well there are a few that will perform satisfactorily in shadier spots.
Snowdrops are perfect for adding a little sparkle. There are a couple of different species typically available but I usually select Galanthus elwesii which is taller at 12" than the 6" common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis). Plant at least five clustered together.
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) is a fabulous deer resistant bulb that can be used to naturalize in sunny or partially shaded gardens. Its bright buttercup-like flowers add a lovely splash of color at the edge of a shady container but at just 3" tall be sure that the adjacent plants will not hide these dainty beauties.
Crocus prefer lots of sun but if your containers get full morning sun they should still bloom nicely. Typically available in shades of purple, yellow and white it's easy to find something to work with your color scheme. Look for the larger flowered varieties such as Jeanne d'Arc (white), Pickwick (lilac and white stripes) or Flower Record (deep purple).
I usually look for dwarf varieties of sun loving bulbs.
Daffodils (Narcissus)– the petite Tete a Tete are well known and are great value since each bulb has multiple flower stalks. The slightly taller February Gold and Jetfire with its orange trumpet are also great candidates since their flower size won't overpower the other container plants.
For a white color scheme the fragrant Thalia is a good choice or Erlicheer which has double white flowers with a hint of buttery yellow and also smells wonderful.
Tulips – there are many shorter varieties of tulips with attractive leaves – an important consideration for container garden design. Many of these also have multiple flowers per bulb so you get a lot of color from a small amount of space. Red Riding Hood (red flowers with purple striped leaves). Calypso (orange-red flowers edged with yellow and a black base with purple striated foliage) and Juan (orange with a yellow base and purple mottled leaves) are three of my favorites.
Where greater height is needed Princess Irene is my #1 choice. Rich reddish-orange flowers with a purple flare are set off by the blue-green foliage. This partners well with dark foliage or lime green accents.
For a softer color scheme Foxtrot is stunning with double peony type blooms in varying shades of rose or New Design has pretty pink flowers and green leaves with white margins. Don't be afraid to cut off a few leaves if they spoil the look of the overall container design.
Hyacinths – a single hyacinth can perfume a room so imagine what a few in a container can do! With colors from white, pink, blue to purple and peach there's bound to be one that is just right. Woodstock has long been a personal favorite with its rich burgundy color, closely followed by the hot pink Jan Bos.
Dwarf iris (Iris reticulata) are a less common choice yet at 6" tall they are perfect for containers. I especially like the midnight blue JS Dijt with a central yellow flash when paired with golden foliage or even yellow pansies. Pixie is similar but a little lighter.
Grape hyacinths (Muscari) are also a welcome change, their strappy foliage having a grass like appearance at the edge of a container while the clusters of grape-like flowers in shades of blue or white are pretty.
- Match the color of your bulbs to the overall color scheme of your container design for a designer look.
- Height – keep shorter bulbs to the front of your containers
- Tuck bulbs in between permanent plants or even underneath finely rooted plants such as pansies. The spring shoots will squeeze through and to the side of these easily.
- Plant bulbs under seasonal color spots such as chrysanthemums or asters to give a second tier of color. Ideally remove these perennials when they have died down and gently backfill the hole with a little extra soil to cover the exposed bulbs, although this is not essential.
Add organic fertilizer under the bulbs when planting to promote root growth.If your garden is popular with squirrels you may want to consider adding chicken mesh or a special bulb cage to protect the bulbs.What about a container with tiers of bulbs that will bloom sequentially in spring? Try the lasagna planting method.
My favorite bulb growers – not only do they have excellent quality and size bulbs they are wonderful people. Can't do better than that.