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Great Gardening: It's bulb time. This year, layer them!

The Dutch call it “bulb lasagne” – a catchy name for combining and layering bulbs to create stunning displays with long-lasting color.

The largest example of layered and massed flower bulb designs is in the Netherlands at Keukenhof, called the largest flower garden in the world. A tour there is breathtaking, showcasing the Netherlands’ centuries-old mastery of bulb culture.

On tour there with traveling gardeners I found the displays stunning, but they did not overwhelm people to the point of discouragement.

Rather, we saw combinations and plant groupings that we could replicate at home, however small the garden.

Bulbs are not just for “plantaholics” or garden nerds. Bulbs are for everybody.

Here in Western New York we can layer bulbs in multiple ways, in our outdoor gardens and patio containers or our indoor tabletops. It just takes some planning, a few easy techniques, and making the effort to find the right bulbs. You can start right now.

Layer them in a garden

Some gardeners plant a “tulip bed” or “bulb bed” that is dazzling for a few weeks but is then ignored while the leaves fade. (Many public gardens do spring bulb displays, but lift and discard the bulbs after bloom time.)

Other gardeners plant colorful bulbs among or behind perennials that will emerge after the bulbs’ flowering time, so the new leaves block the old bulb foliage. Pairing the plants and placing the bulbs is an art form and skill that takes years of experimentation.

Whether you are putting the bulbs in bulb beds or mixed beds, why not add excitement by layering?

As a simple example: Choose yellow daffodils and purple hyacinths, and plant them at their appropriate depths mixed together, so that flowering will overlap. Or choose several different types of tulips or narcissus – both available with early, mid-season, and late-flowering kinds – and plant them together so you will have a long-lasting display.

The possibilities are endless; bulb companies even sell combination packages. Just choose some bulbs and start.

Basic rules for layering bulbs:

1 - Choose bulbs that are large, firm, and hardy for USDA Zone 5.

2 - Prepare soil, preferably compost-rich, non-compacted garden soil.

3 - Plant largest bulbs first (usually the latest to flower), at least 1½ to 2 inches apart, at their recommended depth or slightly deeper. (That could be 12 inches for large allium or fritillaria bulbs.)

4 - Cover that layer with a few of inches of soil.

5 - Plant the next smaller bulbs (perhaps tulips or daffodils) on top of the big ones, spacing them close to 2 inches apart. You may want to avoid placing them directly on top of the lower bulbs, but it isn’t really important: Growing shoots will reach upward and around whatever obstacles they hit. Continue the process with each layer of smaller and later-blooming bulbs.

6 - In deer, rabbit, squirrel territory: Cover the planting with chicken wire or fencing.

7 - Water well.

8 - If you mulch, do so only after the ground has frozen.

Mix them in a pot

Mixed container. (brentandbeckysbulbs.com)

The same concept applies for outdoor “lasagnas.” In containers, use only indoor potting mix. Remember that spring-flowering bulbs require winter chilling, so plan to store the planted containers in a cold garage or porch – ideally 35 to 45 degrees. Or pre-chill the bulbs themselves for several weeks before planting (sometimes done by garden centers).

Bulbs in containers, layered or not, have several advantages over in-ground gardens. They can be moved in and out of prime locations, according to entertaining or decorating needs. They are easy to re-think and alter every season. And they will let you grow the gorgeous, tasty tulips that most of us have had to forego in deer country.

Last year, early in the growing season, I visited Terrain in Westport, Conn., along with some associates who were gathering design ideas.

Terrain is a stylish garden and outdoor living center (with café), that exudes creativity. Among their display gardens were several huge, mixed, layered containers filled with bulbs that would bloom for many months. Their spring collection included black parrot tulips, ‘Orange Monarch’ crocuses, and ‘Delft Blue’ hyacinths – wow.

Think color. Think big. Think layers. It’s time to plant bulbs!

Where our bulbs come from

Most of the flower bulbs planted in the world come from the Netherlands – often called Holland. (More correctly, Holland is actually a region and a former province of that country.) The Netherlands rules in bulb production because of its ideal climate and soil, and because the Dutch growers have been perfecting their growing and distribution systems for 400 years.

Camassia quamash. (brentandbeckysbulbs.com)

The Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center reports that about 1,500 growers supply bulbs to about 100 Dutch firms that then export bulbs to the world. The U.S. buys about 1.5 billion bulbs per year in recent times.

To buy your bulbs, you have choices. First, consider our garden centers, whose buyers meet with reps from Holland and carefully select the bulbs they believe will suit you.

Masterson’s – beekeeper central – features bulbs that are especially attractive to pollinators; other garden centers from Hamburg to Clarence offer the hardiest bulbs that are the least interesting to deer.

Buy locally when possible.

But if you can’t find the treasured Camassia or Puschkinia, must you go to Holland? I suggest you trust the large firms that specialize in bulbs, and offer the best education and customer service, such as Colorblends Bulbs (colorblends.com) and Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (brentandbeckysbulbs.com).

I favor those companies for the wisdom and inspiration they share, and also because they have both provided thousands of bulbs to private and public gardens in the Buffalo area, in appreciation for our garden tourism culture.

You may already have your own favorite resource – perhaps White Flower Farm (whiteflowerfarm.com) – but wherever you shop online, chances are they did their shopping in the Netherlands.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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