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Expert tips for statement bulbs that will stand out in grass

Purple alliums and blue camassias in the wild flower meadows at Highgrove
Purple alliums and blue camassias in the wild flower meadows at Highgrove Credit: GAP Photos/Highgrove - A. Butler

The blooming of bulbs in spring is one of the greatest seasonal pleasures. Drenched in the optimism of longer days and the warmer weather to come, we often like to keep our bright flowers close, planted into tubs and borders where they will stand smartly to attention in a neatly manicured setting. 

Yet bulbs have a wilder and more atavistic side, thriving and surviving in those more rugged and hostile places beyond the patio. They can form carpets under deciduous trees, stud the rough grass of an early meadow with bright gems, and transform a patchy spring lawn into a thing of beauty. 

Even quite delicate-looking bulbs will grow happily among both ornamental and native grasses. If the conditions are right, particularly in regard to light and moisture levels, bulbs are often stronger than they seem and will settle in and get on with the job of flowering and multiplying for a low-maintenance display that gets better every year. 

Here, six expert gardeners explain how they use a variety of bulbs, planted in autumn, to make a statement in rougher areas of the garden.

Andy Sturgeon, garden designer

Wood anemone (A. nemorosa), is a favourite of Andy Sturgeon

I often plant native wood anemones, Anemone nemorosa, at the fringes of a lawn, where the grass drifts into the bushes. It is small and delicate and flowers early, forming carpets under deciduous shrubs and doing its thing before the leaves come out. It’s really uplifting to see, as you know that spring is under way. 

Another neat, early bulb is Chionodoxa forbesii, which has delicate starlike flowers the colour of Delft blue china. It is versatile, well-behaved and spectacular in drifts; it can grow at the edge of a lawn and also works well under trees, so is useful in most gardens.

For a later display, I’ve recently started using Gladiolus communis subsp. byzantinus. Alone it can look garish but if you team it with long summer grasses it becomes much more sophisticated and acceptable. It doesn’t spread very quickly, but it does seem to persist. 

Tom Coward, head gardener, Gravetye Manor, Sussex

Leucojum 'Gravetye Giant' is recommended by Tom Coward Credit:  Marianne Majerus Garden Images; Knickerbockerglory TV

Think about how you want to manage your grass and then use bulbs strategically. I don’t cut wild flower meadows until July, but elsewhere I might want to cut the grass earlier to stop it looking scruffy, so in these places we’d plant early bulbs such as snowdrops, crocuses and Scilla sibirica; the scilla combines well with Narcissus pseudonarcissus, as you get lemon yellow with sky blue.

In wetter areas you could use the dainty early daffodils N. cyclamineus or N. bulbocodium.  Bulbs are great with tree blossom, too. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is a wonderful thing: it has a long season, it’s prolific and is beautiful naturalised in grass under birches and cherries. And Camassia leichtlinii subsp. suksdorfii Caerulea Group does well in the orchard here – with apple blossom it’s magic!

Kate Elliott, head gardener, Columbine Hall, Suffolk 

Snake's head fritillaries are grown by Kate Elliott Credit:  Andrea Jones/Garden Exposures

In our damp meadow, the snake’s-head fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris, look wonderful in late spring, and we are now adding lots of camassia, too.  I have found that Camassia quamash is easiest to establish here; it is a wonderful blue that really stands out. The foliage is very slow to die down, so it’s best in the meadow, where the summer grass becomes long enough to hide the tatty leaves. They also like it damp, so water well over a period of several weeks after planting, particularly if the weather is dry. 

We also grow ‘Spring Green’ and ‘White Triumphator’ tulips in long grass under a row of pleached limes, and these are timed to flower alongside the cow parsley. We love cow parsley here.  It is a beautiful combination: lovely and frothy; very simple but really effective. 

Jacqueline van der Kloet, expert planting designer

Allium cristophii is a favourite of Jacqueline van der Kloet Credit: RHS

I love to use combinations of bulbs in a naturalistic style, with rough or long grass, and also with ornamental grasses. When planting with natural grass, I choose strong, competitive bulbs such as snowdrops, followed by grape hyacinths, Muscari latifolium, and the summer snowflake, Leucojum aestivum. This way you have three periods of flowering from early to late spring. 

Ornamental grasses are a great background for late-spring bulbs as they appear at the same time. My favourites are Allium cristophii and A. nigrum, respectively lilac-purple and greenish white.  Both are reliably perennial and will even multiply if the conditions are right. 

Jacqueline van der Kloet’s new book,  A Year in My Garden, is out now.

Josh Sparkes, head gardener, Forde Abbey, Dorset 

Crocus vernus; Josh Sparkes Credit: Marianne Majerus Garden Images; fordeabbey.co.uk

We are lucky enough here to have amazing, species-rich medieval-style meadows, so we prefer bulbs that reflect their setting; varieties that are not necessarily big and showy, but which sit well within the landscape.

Late-flowering species tulips, such as Tulipa sylvestris and T. sprengeri, are lovely at the edge of the wood, where it is slightly shady. Elsewhere, there is an area of poor, free-draining soil where we grow Tulipa tarda; it dislikes competition but the grass is thin there and the flowers grow sprinkled like jewels. 

We use lots of Crocus vernus and also C. tommasinianus; this colonises quickly and is the best crocus for naturalising in grass. The crocuses and tulips self-seed and although the resulting flowers take a few years to appear, seed is the best way to increase bulbs in a meadow as you don’t have to touch them.

And a top tip when planting bulbs is to leave the hole for a few minutes to see if it fills with water – if it does, it is worth checking that your bulbs will take the moisture. 

Tom Stuart-Smith, garden designer

The wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus; Tom Stuart-Smith Credit: Alamy; Heathcliff O'Malley

Narcissi are great with grass – my garden is stuffed with them. Flowering in February and March, Narcissus pseudonarcissus is probably best and N. poeticus var. recurvus will also naturalise. It is wonderful as it flowers so late – until the end of May in a cold year. Plant them with ‘Jenny’ for early April and ‘Thalia’ and ‘Actaea’ for late April and you can have three months of daffodils that will thrive in even the roughest grass.

If you are gardening on poor, limestony brash, try Anemone apennina. It is expensive but beautiful, finer than common A. blanda, and it likes dry, open ground.

My garden has stony soil so I plant bulbs using an auger – the bulb planter just breaks. In heavy soil and shade, Martagon lilies are good. Bulbs are often sold too small to compete with grass, so grow them on for a year in a large pot so they can bulk up.