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Deer Resistant Guide for Planting Fall Bulbs in Natural Landscapes

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Deer Resistant Guide for Planting Fall Bulbs in Natural Landscapes

by Dyana Robenalt

As we all know, marauding deer can devastate landscapes, especially in spring when they are most active. Unless your plans include a minimum of a 7-foot fence, having an excellent knowledge of all aspects of fall bulbs can mean the difference between delivering a good spring landscape plan or a glorious spring landscape that blends harmoniously with nature.

This article focuses on a few critical steps that will ensure a stunning spring landscape that you will enjoy long after your plans have been executed. When it comes to true native bulbs, the list is fairly short.

There are, however, several interesting bulb options for the natural landscape in many colors, textures and shapes highlighted here along with simple tricks to give you breathtaking swaths of color with lasting sustainability.

Site Planning
Planting the right bulbs in the right location ensures longevity. Keep the following important considerations in mind:
* Most bulbs require at least 6 hours of full sun.
* Shade from deciduous trees is usually not an issue since most bulbs will have finished blooming before leaves appear on the tree.
* Planting bulbs in a southern exposure near a wall or building will accelerate the growth process as soil temperatures are warmer.
* It is critical that any meadow or open grassland site isn't too soggy and that you don't plant in low-lying drainage areas where water collects.
* If your site is riddled with tree roots, rocks, or existing plants it's a good idea to stick to smaller bulbs that don't have to be planted more than 2 to 4 inches deep. In turf areas, the grass can be peeled back and holes can be dug for multiple bulbs to be planted. The grass must be watered thoroughly afterward so it does not dry out. Individual holes can be “drilled” into the turf directly but this may be more laborious.
* Be sure to select bulbs that match the natural scheme of the landscape in form and color.
* Taking pictures of the potential site in the spring is critical to your success. This allows you to capture gaps where bulbs already exist in the landscape, pinpointing exact locations for planting and calculating the number of bulbs required.

Bulb Calculations for the Space
The general rule of thumb for calculating the number of bulbs you will need is more, more and more! You can never have enough, however if budget is an issue, bulbs can be added in three year phases. The general recommended spacing for bulbs is one to two bulb lengths apart.

Use this handy chart to calculate the number you will need per square foot:
Large Daffodils – 5-8
Miniature Daffodils – 7-10
Leucojum – 6-10
Camassia esculenta – 3-4
Eremurus - 1
Hyacinthoides – 5-8
Alliums – 2-6 (depending on variety)
Fritillaria imperialis – 2
Fritillaria meleagris varieties-8-10
Muscari – 15-20

Interesting Selections for the Natural Landscape
Leucojum aestivum – Summer Snowflake Gravetye Giant blooms from early to mid spring and is named after the English writer, William Robinson who lived at Gravetye Manor in West Sussex, England. This is an excellent, slightly fragrant bulb for naturalizing and is fairly carefree as long as it gets enough moisture in spring and partial sun to semi-shade. It is drought tolerant in the summer months.

Muscari armeniacum - Grape Hyacinths provide outstanding color combinations with lighter colors in mid spring and naturalize beautifully. It grows in full sun to partial shade, is slightly fragrant and grows 6-10 inches tall.

Hyacinthoides – Spanish bluebells bloom in mid spring and also provide excellent bluish lavender accent to light colored bulbs. It is low maintenance, naturalizes beautifully and grows well in full sun to partial shade. While it originated in Spain, Portugal and northwest Africa, it grows quite well in average, well drained soil.

Eremurus bungeii – Foxtail Lilies give a spectacular show for about 3 weeks in late spring. They grow in full sun 3-4 feet in yellow and pink. Plant eremurus in groups of 7-11 bulbs among other bulb types for an extraordinary look. They originated from Central Asia but will grow nicely in rich, well drained soil.

Camassia esculenta and C. leichtlinii – Indian hyacinths or quamish bulbs are North American natives tolerant of marshes and bogs. They like wet feet and are excellent along ponds, meadows and streams or difficult wet sites. They can also handle clay soils and well drained sites rich in humus. Blooming in late spring and excellent for naturalizing, they can appear a little scruffy toward the end of their bloom period. They are recommended for a prominent front door or highly visible location, but are excellent amidst other blooming bulbs and perennials.

Narcissus and Daffodil selections – Daffodils are widely known to be the landscaper’s primary choice for deer resistant bulbs and could be thought of as passé; however, there are many interesting varieties. Check out the following selections for a new twist on an old theme:
Marieke – Classic deep yellow with very LARGE heads and outstanding for naturalizing. It blooms early in midseason, grows to about 15 inches, attracts bees, butterflies and birds and provides outstanding reliability for at least 10 years. It is also highly tolerant of urban soils and conditions.
Ring of Fire – This large cupped Daffodil is pure white with yellow cups tipped with a touch of red. It is a showy, tried and true bulb that can grow virtually anywhere in slightly acidic soil.
Toto – This white, lightly creamy yellow miniature 6-8-inch Narcissus is an amazing bulb for naturalizing as it has many flowers on one stem. It blooms in mid-spring.
Golden Bells – This distinctive 6-inch miniature packs lots of punch with 15-20 flowers for each bulb and is fantastic for naturalizing. Bees, butterflies and birds love these. They make an excellent spring groundcover.
Trepolo – This mid-spring 14-18-inch daffodil has unusual, luscious blooms. Their orangish-yellow split corona type heads make gorgeous, long lasting cut flower bouquets. They can actually grow under Black Walnut trees!

Fritillaria imperialis and F. meleagris – These dramatic and showy flower bulbs can be used as a strategic perimeter planting to ward off deer and other critters due to their somewhat “stinky” smell. They come in creamy whites, purple, yellow and oranges and are non-fussy and very easy to grow.

Allium – Last but not least, Allium is one of the most showy, deer-resistant bulbs that can be used as an excellent focal point. There is a variety in sizes and shapes, but the most widely known have pom pom type heads on tall, straight stalks that come in white, pink and purple. These non-edible ornamental onion bulbs bloom from mid spring into summer.

Successful Planting Tips
* Bulbs should be planted two to three times the size of the bulb deep in the ground.
* Treat bulbs like perishable produce and plan the order to arrive within a few weeks of planting. They should be stored at around 60 degrees in a cool place out of the sun and not allowed to get too warm or they may rot before you get them in the ground.
* For new beds or naturalizing, the soil should be loosened at least 3-4 inches below the planting depth of the bulb to allow for proper drainage. Organic matter is a must for long term sustainability and the ratio for adding compost is roughly one part compost to 4 parts existing soil.
* Planting can be done from the time the soil reaches 60 degrees until the ground is nearly frozen. In NJ, my general rule of thumb is to be finished planting by Thanksgiving; however, it can be done in December weather dependent.
* In nature, plants grow in irregular patterns and when naturalizing, it is best to replicate this.
* Planting bulbs in larger groups always makes for a more dramatic display. A single color is recommended for smaller spaces as multiple colors can make the space look smaller.
* When possible, use a hammer drill with a 2-foot auger to drill holes for faster installations.
* For more formal installations, use 1” x 1” wood in 4-8-foot lengths to create a 3-4-inch grid template. Use this as a ground template and install the bulbs with an auger for perfect spacing and faster installation.
* Always use a tape measure to periodically check for accurate depth placement during the installation process.
* To create an illusively larger display, plant in a triangular shape with the viewing focal point as the point of the triangle and the “back” of the viewing area with the larger number of bulbs.
* Plant bulbs in large drifts and waves rather than straight lines and never “onesie-twosies” for more spectacular displays.
* Adding bone meal to the soil for bulbs has become a questionable practice because the smell can attract skunks, dogs and other rodents who will dig into the soil.
* It is normally not necessary to use a fertilizer for the initial installation of bulbs, but definitely use a 5-10-10 in the spring around the time of bloom. Do not allow the fertilizer to touch the bulb or foliage.
* Protect your initial installation especially for large financial investments in remote sites, fields or where rodents may become a problem, by using Ro-Pel, an ecologically safe liquid with an intensely bitter taste. This prevents all types of animals from digging up the bulbs. You can also lay wire mesh inside the planting holes to prevent burrowing animals from accessing the bulbs and destroying your plantings.

Hopefully this reference guide will serve as a handy resource for your future bulb plantings. Feel free to offer comments and suggestions or other ideas that have worked.

Dyana Robenalt is the Estate and Enhancement Manager for Statile & Todd, Far Hills, NJ. She is a Rutgers Master Gardener with 40 years of gardening experience and her specialties include deer resistant plants and native plants to attract birds, butterflies and hummingbirds. She has also served on the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Advisory Council for the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program.

Contact her at for more information.

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published September 17, 2012

Photos to enlarge

Daffodils galore on a slope. Estate managed by the author. Photo Courtesy of Statile & Todd

Leucojum aestivum, snowdrops. Photo Courtesy of Ednie Bulbs

The author manages the property. Photo Courtesy of Statile & Todd

Golden Foxtail lilies, Eremurus bungeii, and allium in the Perennial Garden at Colonial Park, Somerset, NJ. Photo by Mary Jasch

Indian hyacinths, Cammassia sp., at Leonard J. Buck Garden, Far Hills, NJ. Photo by Mary Jasch

Fritillaria imperialis, Photo by KathyAnn Brown

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