Sunday 15 April 2018

Naturalising dwarf bulbs

Mainly about bulbs such as scilla and chinodoxa that seed themselves around

I love rampant mixtures
I adore all those spring bulbs that take up permanent residence in the garden. I have written extensively about establishing narcissus, tulips, hyacinths, bluebells and snowdrops. My recent post about establishing bulbs in Lyndi’s field is almost my most popular ever!

A handful of anemone bulbs in Lyndi's uncultivated field emerge in their first year
My purpose today is to concentrate on those bulbs that as a result of prolific seeding and given time will cover the garden with sheets of glorious colour

White in this case
I am sorry to repeat myself that success in naturalisation comes readily to the none digger. It is he who has glorious carpets of Cyclamen hederifolium and coum. Bulbs go dormant  and get forgotten out of season. Only the very most vigorous subjects withstand careless disturbance. (Although I might mention Peter Williams mistakenly stirred around his Dicentra cucullaria and now has a magnificent clump and  I know of a commercial grower who lightly rotatavates his snowdrops in summer every few years to propagate them).

Undisturbed clean soil, gravel mulched zones and light grassland are the places for naturalisation. Coarse grass is too competitive for most bulbs but thin grass in woodland might work very well. So too where in the popular fashion low grassland fertility is maintained for ‘wild flowers’. I must admit such starvation goes against the grain with me and this year I lightly scattered fertiliser over my Cyclamen coum!

Happy accident
Some of you will know of my current enthusiasm for creating pure stands of Chewings Fescue grass. In such swards I expect naturalised bulbs I have recently planted to do very well.
Although my emphasis today is to encourage those bulbs that self seed almost all bulbs are best first established as a result of vegetative propagation. With a sufficiently generous budget you can plant thousands of bulbs and cover the ground in a single season! 

A field of this double snowdrop must have arisen by vegetative propagation
It is much more satisfying to let natural division and where possible self seeding increase your stock every year. The most beautiful stands take decades to establish. Some famous collections of snowdrops have been there for more than a century. Although snowdrops are an example of bulbs that can seed themselves you will find most stands are at least in part genetically uniform. This indicates vegetative spread with the help of rabbits and other natural disturbance. Crowded snowdrops (and bluebells) get pushed to the surface and nature does the rest.

Certain bulbs eventually make generous crowded clumps that will only spread more widely with the help of the gardener. After several years I would encourage you to lift and replant them

This fritillaria is far too densely crowded and is best spread in clusters over a much greater area. Do it today 
Growing bulbs from seed

Prolific self sown seedlings
Peter Williams' aconites have self seeded in his path.
It would take a very long time to establish drifts of bulbs from a seedsman. Packets are small and some of the seed doubtfully viable. Never-the-less it is a fun way to introduce rare plants to your garden

Scilla biflora seeds very freely
What I envisage today is large quantities of fresh viable seeds produced in situ and naturally cast around. If you are lucky enough to have access to free seeding subjects you can also either scatter seed yourself or get your bulbs started by sowing in a pot or seed tray

Winter aconite freely self seeds
The list of bulbs that seed around freely is not a long one but the few that do are very worthwhile. There are several species and distinct cultivars of scilla and chinodoxa that cover the ground with flower after just a few years. My own personal favourite is Scilla biflora, readily available as bulbs to get your stock going it is extremely prolific. Spread by ants many gardeners have Cyclamen neapolitanum all over and if it likes you Cyclamen coum too. If you are very lucky you might get winter aconite going. It does not take many years for you to curse an excess of bluebells! You will need to be very patient for Fritillaria meleagris to clothe  your wet areas; not so chives which grows like a weed.
Beware real weeds such as ransomes and certain alliums!

The best naturalised Cyclamen coum I know is on a clay soil
Scillas naturalised at Anglsey Abbey
The secrets to successful self sowing is to allow your bulbs to completely die down without cutting or tidying debris away, to have excellent weed control, accurate recognition of seedling bulbs and not stirring the soil after the tiny new bulbs die down. 

Collect seed of Acis autumnalis and sow in a seed tray or divide clumps in the green and replant immediately
There are several bulbs that set fertile seed but do not successfully self sow. There might be serendipity factors such as insufficient seed volume, variable weather conditions and excessively dry soil. Such seeds are best collected and sown in a seed tray. I do this for fritillarias and Narcissus romeuxii and in the past cyclamen for eventual sale on my open day. Peter Williams has been very successful with acis which flowered in its second year.
My own method is to sow up to 200 ripe seeds in a seed tray immediately on collection and place them outside or in my cold greenhouse. Almost invariably they require the winter cold and germinate in late Winter or Spring.
Initially in the unheated greenhouse they complete their first season undisturbed in their tray.

Vegetative propagation

I started my Scilla biflora by planting bulbs which freely self seeded
Lets face it many bulbs spread best by vegetative propagation. Many bulbs, corms and tubers are very cheap to buy. Take Anemone blanda. Provided you buy and plant small handfuls of bulbs at the very start of their sales season and after soaking for 24 hours you will have attractive clumps in their first year. After not very many years natural vegetative spread will give you lovely late spring ground cover all over your borders.
(Researching this post I had found a report on the net that Anemone blanda did not self sow. Peter Williams marched me round to his own garden and pointed to hundreds of newly germinated self sown seedlings)


I took out two large spadefuls and immediately replanted as two large clumps to make the drift larger
I teased this spadeful of fritillary apart and planted small clumps
The double sin of transplanting in full flower and into wet soil
Most dwarf bulbs can without check be lifted and planted ‘in the green’. I do this at any time but it might be best just as they emerge or as they die down. This year in a new project I have been lifting and dividing scillas, chinodoxas, snowdrops, and eranthis in full flower. 
With immediate replanting within the garden dormant bulbs can be replanted at any time as long as you can find them! Not so for such as dry bulbs of snowdrops or cyclamen from the garden centre

Chinodoxa has done particularly well this year

Winter aconite brightens a February day

Dogtooth violets thrive in Peter Williams's light woodland
Credit most of the pictures are from Peter Williams
Links You will find bulb seed in Chiltern's catalogue
My first stop for first class bulbs in quantity is Parkers Wholesale - but not so sure about their plants

Use my search box to find my articles about daffodils, snowdrops, hyacinths, ipheons and acis.


  1. We started with just two cyclamen hederifolium and now have hundreds. They pop up everywhere and have even managed to spread to the allotment and the grass paths. I guess they have been stowaways in spent compost or seed trays. I doubt that ants have traveled that far :-)

  2. Yes It's the human busy bees
    I have been quite busy transplanting my surplus Cyclamen hederifolium to the village plot, Lyndi's field and Cathi's verge recently Some of the corms are the size of plates -er well small side plates!

  3. Ants play a magnificent role in spreading seeds. In my last garden the gravel areas were the placed to look for little seedlings.

  4. I just recently spotted some fantastic Cyclamen coum in the next village growing in a gravel path in shade. Totally neglected and self sown.
    Must get Brenda to look at your blog that I have just linked to, understand why you call yourself stasher

  5. Wonderful mass of Winter Aconite. Too bad that Cyclamen are a bit too tender for around here. Do you find that Iris reticulata can be a fast spreader?

    1. There is something about my soil, perhaps the winter wet that the bulbous irises do not like, Jason. After a few years they just seem to fade away. It would be interesting to know if they naturalise for others such as yourself Jason

  6. I agree with what you say here, but some writers here talk about naturalizing in lawns. Our lawns are too mostly thick and get cut early in spring which would remove the needed foliage of bulbs. I have never understood how this could work, unless you stopped mowing the grass for several months?

    1. I agree and am adamant that bulbs should not be cut back until leaves are almost yellow and brown! I get round this in my lawn with daffodils by having them in clumps which I can mow up to tightly as illustrated in my daffodil posts.
      Lawn is normally too great a competitor except for the earliest bulbs such as snowdrops and crocus.
      I have not yet written about my recent project planting other bulbs in my lawn!
      It is based on the hypothesis that only fine Chewings fescue a none creeping grass is allowed.
      If you read my posts about Cathi's grass verge and Lyndi's field you will find I am getting by with a zero mowing policy but am being utterly ruthless spot glyphosate spraying to tolerate no grasses other than Chewings to get a pure sward of fescue. I have written also how I have achieved this with complete success on the grass paths on the village plot.
      My new project is envisaged to be selected areas differentially mowed very infrequently with my mower set as high as it will go and any plants being low ones and in the case of bulbs mainly those early ones of the kind in this post. I don't expect to cut these new drifts for at least a month form now. It will depend totally on only allowing fine fescues
      You won't be surprised to hear that over the last three years I have been constantly re-ordering Chewings fescue seed as I have developed new areas as my new love has developed.


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