Planting spring-flowering bulbs in the fall is a sign of hope and faith that warmer times will follow the cold and snow. Sometimes it is more than that.

About 10 years ago a friend asked us to plant dozens of bulbs for her. She had just been diagnosed with cancer, and she wanted to think of those future flowers during the cold winter of painful treatments.

She saw the flowers the first spring, but she died before they bloomed a second time. Her husband told us that every spring when those bulbs came into bloom he had wonderful thoughts of his wife. A promise of future life is packed into each bulb.

Even under more ordinary circumstances, if you put so much hope and faith into your bulbs, you want the result to be more exciting than humdrum yellow daffodils and red tulips. The easiest fix is a mix: Instead of buying daffodils and tulips of a single color, buy 100 or so tulips or daffodils in a random mix and plant them together for a colorful display spread out over many weeks.

But I want even more variety.



My wife, Nancy, and I are planting some unusual bulbs this fall. Read on to hear about our choices and also a few we’ve planted in past years or are considering for the future.

Camassia is native to the United States but not to Maine, having been brought east by the Lewis and Clark expedition. They are deer-resistant, can stand up to half-shade, grow almost 3 feet tall, produce blue hyacinth-shaped (a spike with lots of florets) flowers on a taller stem and will multiply if you let the leaves grow until they start turning brown in mid- to late-summer.

Water them as soon as you plant them, and they are likely to produce a little foliage before the snow comes. And next spring you will have flowers that most people haven’t seen before. Remember where you plant the camassia, and this fall or next year add a few yellow daffodils, and you’re doing garden designing with color harmonies.


Freya/ Fritillaria


Fritillaria includes a wide-ranging group of nodding, bell-shaped flowers that come in many colors, many heights and many price levels. Small ones may cost just $6 for five bulbs, while larger ones could set you back as much as $20 a bulb.

The blossoms are usually mottled or splotchy, and though the catalogs may describe it as a checkerboard pattern, it’s not that organized. One bulb bloom is sort of brown, another is orange on top and yellow on the bottom. This plant is for bulb geeks – you either love the odd blooms or think they’re weird.

Anemone blanda

Anemone blanda

We also will plant Anemone blanda “White Splendor,” which we bought from Old House Gardens, a catalog company that specializes in heirloom bulbs. This spring bloomer has small, irregularly shaped bulbs that some catalogs advise soaking for five hours before planting. Old House says you can skip that step, as long as you water heavily right after planting.

They add that some people plant anemone bulbs on their sides because it is difficult to tell the top from the bottom of the bulb. We’ve had lavender windflowers for years and love them, so this was a natural addition.

Alliums, or flowering onions, are another bright, impossible-to-ignore flower. Some of them, like “Purple Sensation” have softball-size, bright balls on top of a 30-inch tall straight, green stem. They mingle well with shorter flowers to create a colorful mix. Put in more yellow daffodils with these for more garden color harmonies.




We have grown Allium “Schubertii” for the past three seasons, and planted eight more this fall. These grow about 18 inches tall, and have a foot-wide bloom with stiff spikes that resemble Sputnik satellites. The blossoms dry out if you leave them on their stems until the end of the growing season. You then bring them inside as dried flowers. If you spray-paint them silver or gold – as Nancy has done – they make great holiday decorations.

We are planting “Hair” alliums for the second time this year. These will grow 24 inches tall and the blooms look a bit like Albert Einstein’s hair – twisting in all different directions. The last time we grew them, passersby actually stopped to check them out. Either the “Hair” alliums don’t proliferate or we accidentally dug them up, because our first planting disappeared. Nothing ate them, I’m sure, because alliums are in the onion family and apparently chipmunks and deer don’t like onions.

We planted “Golden Fragrance” muscari near our back door. They are small and delicate and are a change from the more common blue muscari, called grape hyacinth. They smell good, too. We do have a lot of grape hyacinths in several colors because they are inexpensive and easy to plant. They slowly spread in a cultured manner, always a nice trait.

Leslie Grimschield of Scarborough emailed me an idea she uses for her lawn. In the fall, when using her Japanese gardening knife to weed the dandelions and plantain out of her lawn, she pops a crocus bulb into the hole the weed left behind.

Everyone loves crocuses because, while they are small, they are the first blooms of the season, often photographed with their blooms popping through spring snow. They bloom early enough that they have already gone by before the lawn needs its first mowing of the season.

When I contacted Grimschield to tell her I was going to borrow the idea for this column, she said she saw crocuses planted that way at Harrogate in England.

I see no reason we can’t appropriate it for our own use.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: [email protected]

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