Thankfully, the bright, blooming containers in the Heritage Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden were planted this week, welcoming spring and warm fuzzies along with them. Just standing near these spring annuals makes us happy, and for horticulturist Tom Soulsby—who’s been planting these signature troughs for the past 15 years—it’s one of his favorite things to do each spring.
“After a long, drawn-out winter, it’s nice to have something that cheers people up,” said Soulsby. “It cheers us up, too, to see visitors smiling.”
People look forward to these 41 containers each spring, which is something Soulsby keeps in mind when he’s planting them. By the time April rolls around, people are craving lush, overflowing color after months of dreary gray, so he “overplants” the troughs to make them look full from the get-go.
Poking through the red, orange, and yellow flowers this year is an unusual, edible treat: some Lactuca sativa ‘Australian Yellowleaf’ lettuce. “I’ve never used lettuce before in a container, but it’s a fun alternative for foliage accents, and can tolerate cooler weather,” said Soulsby.
That’s another trick: all of the plants Soulsby picked for these troughs can handle cold and a light frost (but we’re hoping they won’t have to). Some—like the Narcissus ‘Fruit Cup’ daffodils and Tulipa praestans ‘Shogun’ tulips in this year’s troughs—will bloom later. It’s all about balance, Soulsby said—finding a mix of plants that will bloom at varying times.
Here’s hoping Mother Nature takes a cue from these troughs.
Shorter days. Cooler nights. A gardener’s fancy turns to thoughts of bulbs: What’s new this year? How can I boost color in the spring? How do I extend my bloom time? Solutions abound at the Fall Bulb Festival, the area’s largest and most diverse bulb marketplace. The annual event sells more than 200,000 bulbs, from tried-and-true performers to more exotic varieties appealing to the connoisseur.
“We change the palette to include something new each year,” said Stephanie Lindemann, manager of horticultural events. “We like to offer gardeners a wide choice of colors, growing habits, bloom times, and hardiness.”
Gardeners seeking early signs of spring will be happy to see Crocus chrysanthus ‘Blue Pearl’ among this year’s offerings. It’s a favorite of horticulturist Tom Weaver, who oversees the Graham Bulb Garden. The pretty flower—pearlescent white, flamed with blue—brightened the Bulb Garden lawn last spring. It’s also a good candidate to use in perennial borders, under trees and shrubs, and among ground covers.
Another newcomer, Narcissus ‘Frosty Snow’, builds in variety and interest with its color-changing ways. White petals open around a yellow cup, which slowly shifts from white with a yellow rim to pure white. “It’s almost like getting three flowers with one bulb,” Weaver said.
The deep orange of Tulipa kaufmanniana ‘Early Harvest’ can bring warmth and vibrancy to a spring garden, according to Weaver, who recommends partnering the “intensely” orange blooms with a blue anemone (Anemone) or squill (Scilla). ‘Early Harvest’ also offers a more compact height and perennializes well, making it a better bet to return year after year.
A vivid garden palette might benefit from Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Pink Elephant’. Its large, fragrant flower spikes are the palest pink tinged with salmon. Such faint pastels and whites can have a calming effect in a garden and give the eye a place to rest, according to Weaver. Companion planted with a coral-cupped narcissus, ‘Pink Elephant’ could also be used to create a nostalgic feeling.
Allium ‘Pink Jewel’ can step up in early June, right after the tulips are done for the season. “It fills in the gap when there’s not a lot blooming,” Weaver says. The 6-inch flower clusters are composed of cheerful raspberry-sherbet pink florets with bright green centers.
Can’t wait for spring? Pick up a fall-blooming crocus and plant it as soon as you get home. New among this year’s offerings, you’ll find Colchicum ‘Violet Queen’. The large blooms combine beautifully with ground covers, providing a rich, purple color in September and October. ‘Violet Queen’ is pest resistant and naturalizes readily.
Learn more about new additions and old favorites at the Fall Bulb Festival on Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Preview shopping for members only will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Friday, October 10.
Expert staff will be on hand this weekend to describe the hundreds of tulips, narcissus, and specialty bulbs available. Explore diverse growing options, and discover innovative ways to incorporate bulbs into your garden design.
Bulbs are often thought of as a single season “wow,” beautiful in spring and gone by summer. This couldn’t be farther from the truth!
With a little planning, you can have beautiful displays of bulbs throughout the season. You can blend colors seamlessly for a year-long display, or you can mix things up seasonally to give yourself three or four new displays, one for each season! The ephemeral nature of most bulbs allows you to keep things fresh without constantly replanting.
This summer, we’ll be following the Graham Bulb Garden throughout the year to show how a palate of background perennial plants can be transformed into a stunning display of different colors and textures throughout the season.
So what’s blooming now in the Bulb Garden?
Winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) provides an important source of nectar and pollen for early pollinators. On any warm day, you can see hundreds of honeybees scurrying among the flowers.
Giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii) is often one of the first things we see blooming in the Bulb Garden. This year, the first flowers were seen on March 20, well-timed for the start of spring! Snowdrops are best planted near doors or paths where you can appreciate their delicate nature.
Dwarf reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) come in a wide variety of colors, but the one thing they all have in common is their rich color and striking presence in the garden.
Early scilla, or white squill (Scilla mischtschenkoana ‘Tubergeniana’), might not be the most readily available bulb, but its icy blue color and ease of growth make it a great choice for early spring color.