Plant Now For Spring Living Flower Arrangements

November 2, 2015 015

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Who wants to look at empty pots for the next four months?  I am as interested in planting attractive pots for the winter season as I am interested in replanting those pots for summer.  And each fall, I keep an eye and and ear open for new ideas.

Brent Heath offered a workshop last month at his Bulb Shop in Gloucester that I sorely wanted to attend.  He even offered to bring his workshop across the river if I could pull a group together in our community.  And how I wish my time and energy had stretched far enough to invite him!

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Miniature daffodils grow to only 6"-8" tall and work well in spring pots. Plant the entire bulb and foliage out into a permanent spot in the garden when switching out plantings for summer.

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Brent, a master horticulturalist, teaches the finer points of loading containers with bulbs.  Now even though he and his wife Becky are known internationally for their prodigious offering of Daffodils; they sell hundreds of different bulbs and perennials.  Brent’s workshop teaches how to layer several different species of bulbs into a single pot to create a “Living Flower Arrangement” which changes over time as different bulbs appear, bloom, and fade.

I wanted to attend Brent’s workshop to learn a new trick or two.  I’ve used various bulbs in containers for many years now, but there is always a better way, when one is open to learn from someone more experienced.  But the stars haven’t aligned this season, and so I’ve been experimenting on my own with the bulbs we’ve been collecting.

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Violas with white Dianthus, and Muscari. Miniature Daffodils bloomed later in the season.

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The idea is elegantly simple:  since one plants bulbs at different depths depending on the size of the bulb, and since new growth from most bulbs is very narrow before it reaches the light,  one can plant one ‘layer’ of bulbs on top of another, allowing the emerging stems to sort out the spacing as they grow upwards towards the light.  In fact, three or four ‘layers’ of different types of bulbs may be planted into a single large pot.   This very crowded planting works for a single season, but must be unpacked by early summer.  The bulbs may be transplanted ‘in the green’ into garden beds, to allow the leaves to fully recharge the bulb for the next season of flowers.

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 Containers for sale at the Heath's Bulb Shop last April

Containers on display at the Heath’s Bulb Shop last April

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I modify this idea to include annuals, perennials, woodies and moss so the planting has immediate interest while we wait for the bulbs to emerge in the spring.

Begin with a clean pot.  I use coffee filters or a paper towel over the drainage holes to hold the soil while the roots are growing.  The filters will soon decompose.  Choose a good quality, light, commercial potting soil with nutrition already mixed in.  The annuals and perennials are heavy feeders, and the bulbs will perform better in rich soil.  Many of the ‘organic’ potting soils now come pre-loaded with worm castings!

Now one must  ‘do the math.’  Having chosen 2-5 species of bulbs, depending on the size and depth of the pot, first study the proper planting depth of each.  If you are using Daffodils, for instance, which are planted at a depth of 6″, then fill the pot with soil to within about 7″ of the rim.    Set the first ‘layer’ of Daffodil bulbs on the soil by pushing the root end slightly into the soil so that the tip points upwards.  Space these Daffodils 3″-4″ apart from one another and at least an inch or two inwards from the sides of the pot.  Carefully fill in around these bulbs with more potting soil so they are barely covered, and firm the soil with your palm.

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Violas jnder a potted redbud tree grow here with Heuchera and daffodils.

Violas under a potted Redbud tree grow here with Heuchera and Daffodils early last spring.

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Choose your next bulb, adding just enough soil so it is planted at its correct depth, and arrange these bulbs by lightly pushing them into the soil.  Try to avoid setting a new bulb directly over top of a deeper one.  Lightly top with soil to hold this layer in place, and add an additional layer or two of bulbs.  I like to select a few bulbs, like Crocus, Muscari, or Galanthus nivalis, which will emerge in late winter.  These will often be the ones planted most shallow.

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Miniature Iris and Muscari are planted in a grid beneath the moss. Violas fit between the bulbs. I've tucked in rooted cutting of Creeping Jenny for color. These turn bright red in a harsh winter.

Miniature Iris and Muscari are planted in a grid beneath the moss. Violas fit between the bulbs. I’ve tucked in rooted cutting of Creeping Jenny for color. These turn bright red in a harsh winter.

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If your living flower arrangement will contain only bulbs, then simply top off the soil with a layer of living moss, water in, place the pot, and wait.  You can certainly add a few branches, pods, stones or cones to the pot to catch the eye while you wait for spring.

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Violas with creeping jenny and a hardy Sedum.

Violas with Creeping Jenny and a hardy Sedum ‘Angelina’ last April.

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But I want a living flower arrangement which goes to work right away.  I always add some annuals or perennials to the mix, which complicates the bulb planting a bit, as you don’t want bulbs directly under the huge root ball of a perennial or shrub.   I tend to place  a shrub or perennial in the pot first, then plant the bulbs around it.  This is a good use for those clearance shrubs with tiny root balls so easy to find in late October or November.  Or, for the many evergreen shrubs showing up now in tiny quart or 1 gallon pots.

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March 20 2014 spring 006

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Many vines and some perennials root easily from cuttings.  Simply tuck bits of Creeping Jenny, hardy Sedum, or divisions of Ivy or Ajuga into the soil of your finished pot.  These will grow in place.  Consider sprinkling seeds for perennials like Columbine, which like to overwinter out of doors.  They will begin to sprout next spring as the bulbs emerge.

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Creeping Jenny last March

Creeping Jenny last March

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You might complete your design with some winter annuals.  You can pot up the deeper layers of bulbs, and then plant a few Violas, Pansies or snaps in the top three inches of the pot.  Layer in your Crocus and Muscari bulbs around them.

~ April 7,2014 spring flowers 002

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I still finish the pot with moss or pebbles.   This topdressing not only looks more attractive than plain dirt; it helps hold moisture, insulates the roots as temperatures dive, and it offers some protection from digging squirrels.  If I were using Tulips in the pot, I would be tempted to lay some chicken wire, with large openings, over that layer of bulbs for further protection from marauding rodents.  Tuck in a few cloves of garlic or onion sets to protect your Violas from grazing deer and rabbits.

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March 20 2015 fresh 027~

Now, the ultimate ‘multi-tasking’ for this sort of planting:  hardwood cuttings.  Many of our woodies will root over winter if stuck into moist soil and left alone for several months.  If you have some shrubs you would like to propagate, take your cuttings and push them artistically into the finished pot.  If they root, fine.  If they don’t, you have still enjoyed the extra sculptural elements they lend over winter while the bulbs are sleeping.

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I've added a hardwood cutting of fig to this new mixed planting with bulb and other flowering plants.

I’ve added a hardwood cutting of fig to this new mixed planting with bulb and other flowering plants.

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This sort of winter ‘living flower arrangement’ takes a bit of planning.  There are lots of choices to make about timing and color schemes, size and scale, costs and placement.  You have to imagine how the bulbs will look when they emerge, so the tall ones are more to the center and the shorter ones nearer the edges; unless the shorter ones will finish before the tall ones emerge.  And the container must be large enough to contain all of those robust roots without cracking; and of material which will hold up to your winter weather.

~March 6, 2015 garden 002

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This is an excellent way to showcase miniature Daffodils and other delicate, small flowering bulbs.  You might combine several types of daffies to include those which flower early, mid- and late season.  Daffodils with blue Muscari always look great together.

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Ornamental cabbage with Heuchera in a newly planted pot.

Ornamental cabbage with Hellebore in a newly planted pot.

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You might also compose an arrangement of various Iris.  Include some combination of Iris unguicularis, Iris bucharica, Iris histrioides, Iris reticulata, Dutch Iris, and perhaps even a root of German Bearded Iris for a long season of beautiful Iris blooms.

If your winter is especially harsh, plant your container now, water it in, but leave it in an unheated garage or shed until February.  Bring it out into the spring sunshine and enjoy the bulbs when the worst of winter has passed.

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Newly planted Violas with Heuchera

Newly planted Violas with Hellebores.  Bulbs are tucked into the soil, waiting for spring.

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We enjoy the luxury of  Zone 7b, which allows us to grow winter annuals which would die a few states to the north, and also bulbs which wouldn’t survive in the warmer winters to our south.  We also have many winter or early spring  flowering shrubs to plant in our container gardens.

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Arum italicum unfurls its first leaf today. The tuber has been growing for about a month now.

Arum italicum unfurls its first leaf today. The tuber has been growing for about a month now.  Foliage will fill this pot all winter, with flowers appearing in the spring.

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Here are some of the plants I choose most often for these dynamic pots:

Perennials:  Hellebores, Heucheras, Cyclamen hederifolium, Arum, Iris unguicularis, evergreen ferns, culinary Sage, Rosemary, Ivy, Lysimachia nummularia (Creeping Jenny), Sedum rupestre, ‘Angelina’ and other hardy Sedums, Ajuga, Vinca Minor (Periwinkle), hardy Oxalis, Columbine, Dianthus

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Pansies will soon respond to wramer days and nights with renewed growth. Here with miniature daffodils.

Pansies will soon respond to warmer days and nights with renewed growth. Here with miniature daffodils.

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Annuals:  Violas, Panolas, Pansies, Snapdragons, Allysum, ornamental kale or cabbage

Whatever combination of plants you choose, think of these living flower arrangements as narratives which unfold over time.

Time truly is the magical ingredient for baking bread, raising children, and creating beautiful gardens.

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March 25-28 013

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Woodland Gnome 2015

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

4 responses to “Plant Now For Spring Living Flower Arrangements

  1. Especially in a mature garden, it’s a good idea to grow new bulbs this way so that one can see where there are openings to transplant them in the spring. You have given some good ideas for doing so more artistically.

  2. I love your mixed containers – they are always so beautiful!

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