When you think of planting spring bulbs in fall, chances are you envision placing them in neat rows or clusters between perennials, under roses or around shrubs. You can do that, for sure, but you also should consider naturalizing them.
To naturalize bulbs simply means to plant them in such a way so they appear to have sprouted without any human intervention. That means no single-file planting (an unfortunate practice even if not naturalizing) or carefully orchestrated groupings.
Naturalizing can be accomplished in established beds and borders or in barren sections of the yard. Sometimes, if considered carefully, it can even be done right in the lawn. The goal is to keep things informal and maintain the illusion that the whole thing was unplanned.
When planting in the lawn, it’s important to select only bulbs that bloom early or very early because, as with all bulb plants, their foliage must not be cut down until it withers and browns on its own. That’s because leaves serve a vital purpose, working hard to photosynthesize, or produce food to use for energy in order to bloom the following year. If you cut them back too soon, you’ll essentially starve your plants. And since you probably won’t want to be the only neighbor on the block with foot-tall grass because you’re waiting for your tulips to die back before taking out the mower, it’s best to avoid plants that will grow into lawn season.
The best bulbs for naturalizing are ones that will multiply and gradually spread out over the years. Good choices for use in the lawn are snowdrops, white squill, crocus, grape hyacinth, glory of the snow, blue squill and early daffodils, such as February gold.
The simplest — and most fun — way to naturalize is to toss handfuls of bulbs into the air and plant them exactly where they land, with a little readjustment if necessary. The goal is to create drifts instead of rows or clusters.
To organize the chaos a bit, you might outline an area with a garden hose or rope and stand in it when you toss your bulbs. If you’re creating a mixed bed, toss the larger bulbs first and work your way down to the smallest. Stand back and assess your handiwork. Reposition for spacing, if necessary, and set them pointy end up. For extra informality, set a few bulbs outside the boundary, just for good measure.
When all your bulbs are in place, dig them in, one by one, using a spade, bulb planter or auger, taking care to observe recommended planting depths for each bulb. Add a half-teaspoon of granulated 5-10-5 fertilizer to each planting hole, along with a small handful of crushed oyster shells to discourage squirrels and other critters from disturbing your handiwork. There are no guarantees when it comes to critters, but they do find the texture of the shells irritating and will find it unpleasant to dig there. As a bonus, the shells will leach nutrients into the ground that will nourish the bulbs.
Cover bulbs with soil, tamp down and water well. Then sit back and wait for the compliments to roll in come spring.