Home & Garden: A Spring Awakening for Your Garden

Teresa Woodard
Expert bulb gardeners, including Marlene Suter in Westerville, plant their gardens so that a variety of blooming color occurs throughout the spring. Among flowers in the Suter garden are tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and others.

Marlene Suter has spring fever. It strikes in the depths of Ohio’s cold winters as she longs for warm sunshine, garden blooms, songbird melodies and time outdoors. So, it’s no surprise she remedies her longing by planting a bonanza of spring bulbs—tens of thousands of them—on the 1.5-acre property that she and her husband, Fred, own in Westerville. She plants with abandon each fall, eagerly awaits the blooms through winter, then celebrates their arrival in spring.

“If you love spring, you’ve got to do bulbs,” she says. “There’s nothing like bulbs to feed your soul.”

In late February, even before spring’s official arrival, Marlene’s white snowdrops emerge, often pushing through the snow-covered ground with their bright green shoots and bell-shaped flowers. The bloom parade marches on with mini purple rock irises, blue Siberian squill, lavender crocuses and February Gold daffodils. More daffodils in yellow, white and salmon speckle a hillside in March, then a rainbow of tulips and other specialty bulbs color her front walkway in April and May.

“If you stagger what you plant and plant early, mid- and late-blooming varieties, you’ll have a long bloom season,” assures Marlene, a retired leadership coach and now a Master Gardener volunteer.

Over the years, her passion for papery bulbs and their remarkable colorful blooms has multiplied. At 23, she planted her first tulips along a narrow strip of soil outside her first apartment. Later, when she and Fred moved to their current home, they cleared the property of bush honeysuckle and started filling their blank canvas. The couple planted trees, shrubs and perennials, and eventually Marlene experimented with bulbs.

She started with daffodils, which were unappealing to the deer that browsed their hillside, then tried tulips closer to the house. For the next 20 years, she planted roughly 2,000 bulbs each fall. Today, swaths of daffodils bloom along a dry creek bed at the side of the house. A colorful kaleidoscope of tulips, daffodils and spring perennials welcomes visitors at the entry to their black-and-white house. In back, an arbor bed is filled with wildflowers, tulips and daffodils plus a stone path installed by their son.

At one point, Marlene says her family put a plant moratorium in place. “No more new plants,” she says they told her during the year of her hip replacement when they stepped in to care for her garden while she healed.

The moratorium didn’t last long. Today, she continues to experiment with new varieties and combinations and carefully records their bloom time, successful color combinations and ideas for the coming year. Fred helps her get the job done by caring for the lawn, the compost pile and the bird feeders. He also shreds the leaves.

“The garden is never finished,” says Marlene. “It is constantly changing, and I love the process.”

Of course, change is never more evident than in Ohio’s unpredictable springs. Thankfully, the variety is a perfect cure for Marlene’s spring fever.

“Because the weather is so variable in Ohio, every spring is different,” she says.

Layers of Spring

Marlene Suter shares tips for layering colors, details, bloom times and heights to maximize a garden’s spring show.

Sequential blooms: Plant combinations of bulbs with similar bloom times. Check the package or online information to see if the bulbs bloom early, mid- or late-season. Marlene suggests Lilac Wonder tulips with Hawera daffodils or Little Beauty tulips with blue daisy-like Anemone blanda.

Tall and short combos: Plant shorter bulbs, such as grape hyacinth, beneath taller ones such as daffodils. Marlene says she learned this “shoes and socks” trick from Brent Heath of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs of Gloucester, Va. As a bonus, the grape hyacinths’ lingering foliage helps remind her where daffodils are planted when she adds more bulbs each fall. Her favorite grape hyacinths include the bold blue armeniacum Muscari or softer blue Valerie Finnis Muscari.

Colorful groundcovers: Add forget-me-nots to create a blue carpet beneath spring bulbs and perennials. Each year, these dainty, sky-blue flowers self-sow and pop up randomly throughout the spring.

Detailed vignettes: Don’t get overwhelmed by large landscape beds. Instead, Marlene suggests breaking them into smaller scenes with interesting details. In one vignette, she combines purple-leafed Firecracker Lysimachia, golden Creeping Jenny and Purple Prince tulips. In another, she combines Ivory Prince hellebores, pink corydalis, Vanilla Crème tulips, Analita tulips and Japanese painted ferns.

Repeated colors: Marlene adds unity to larger spaces by repeating certain colors such as the smoldering orange-pink of Christmas Orange tulips sprinkled throughout her front beds.

Potted bulbs: Marlene cleverly places containers of bulbs at her front door, back patio and arbor to add pops of color in key focal areas. In the fall, she fills plastic liner pots with layers of bulbs that share the same bloom times. “Plant daffodils or tulips then top them with hyacinth or anemone,” she instructs. “Add potting soil, water once, then sink them into the ground or bury them in a compost bin until spring. In March, start checking for leaf tips then pull out the pots and place them in the sun.”

Intermixed perennials: For added interest, plant bulbs among spring perennials such as hostas, forget-me-nots, hellebores and bleeding hearts. One of Marlene’s favorite combos includes Red Riding Hood tulips, chartreuse euphorbia and Georgia Blue veronica. Another involves Sherwood Purple creeping phlox and Yellow Cheerfulness daffodils.

Flowering shrubs and trees: Stagger vertical layers of spring color with flowering shrubs such as azaleas, rhododendrons, weigelas and deutzias, and flowering trees such as redbuds, cherry trees and Kousa dogwoods. Marlene suggests underplanting a Forest Pansy purple-leaf redbud with Cheerfulness daffodils in creamy white.