The stars of spring shine at Chanticleer.
By Marty Ross | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
Spring-flowering bulbs are seasoned performers: They really don’t need much coaching. Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and dozens of other vividly colorful bulbs, planted in the fall, emerge from the soil in the bracing days of spring to charge up gardens and gardeners alike. One of the best places in the Philadelphia region to see these bulbs is at Chanticleer—a public garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania—where they are integrated into sweeping tableaus that pull together the rich natural landscape and the sparkling light of the season.
This year’s PHS Philadelphia Flower Show—with a theme of Holland: Flowering the World—is likely to have a similar impact. Countless thousands of blooming spring bulbs from the Netherlands will ornament dozens of exhibits at the Pennsylvania Convention Center from March 11 to 19. Many of Chanticleer’s staffers will take a break from outdoor work to volunteer at the show, but as soon as it ends, they’ll be back in their boots in the garden, which opens at the end of March with its own fantastic spring display.
Joe Henderson, one of seven Chanticleer horticulturists, loves the same things about bulbs that many gardeners do. “Their flowers are the first signs of spring,” he says. “They come in all these outrageous colors, and they work well with other plants, occupying the same space while adding amazing depth.” Every year Chanticleer staff members plant about 30,000 spring-flowering bulbs, which has given them wide experience with many different species and varieties. On the following pages, a few of these experts share some of the best ways to make the most of the star spring bloomers in your own garden.
Chanticleer’s Gravel Garden, situated on a south-facing slope, is a showplace for plants that thrive in soil with excellent drainage. Stone steps meander through the beds, allowing visitors to experience the plants up close. Little bulbs are highlights here: Grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum and M. armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’), the muscari-like Bellevalia paradoxa, and Iris ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ bloom along with taller tulips like ‘Orange Emperor’ and Tulipa praestans ‘Shogun’.
Tulips are planted with an auger, but horticulturist Lisa Roper plants the little bulbs by the hundreds, digging small holes with a shovel and placing several bulbs in each hole. “One mistake homeowners make is not planting enough bulbs, especially little ones,” she says. “You need a lot to make an impact.”
In Chanticleer’s Silver Bed, near the Pond Garden, Henderson has built up a shimmering spring performance with small bulbs and perennials, including a carpet of the creeping phlox (P. subulata) cultivar ‘Emerald Blue’. He likes to plant with “families of colors”—the warms, cools, and neutrals of the color wheel—in mind. He adds colors from within a family, and complementary tones from other families, with the confidence that they will look great together.
In an area of pastel colors, Henderson sometimes adds a bright surprise. “A poppy, like the Flanders poppy, which is an intense red, can be a nice foil,” he says. The tulip ‘Tinka’, which is soft yellow with a streak of bright red on three outer petals, is one of his favorites. He also loves a little purple fritillary commonly called the guinea-hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris). It has grassy foliage and a checkerboard pattern on the dangling bell-shaped flowers. “It’s way cool,” he says. “If I could have only one bulb, it would be that.”
Daffodils, which come back reliably every spring in our region, are ideally suited to plantings that change little from year to year. Chanticleer gardeners have taken advantage of this natural tendency and refined it into an art form. On the garden’s Orchard Lawn, two blooming rivers of daffodils flow down a slope into a grove of spring-flowering fruit trees. This display began with 40,000 daffodil bulbs in 1991, when Roper used spray paint to outline the planting area. She then designed drifts of daffodils with a bulb auger in hand, making five holes here, three there, and planting a single daffodil bulb in each hole. Over the years, she has added more and more bulbs to fill out the design.
The 10 different daffodil cultivars in the lawn all have white petals, but the flowers have different forms and, for splashes of color, some have orange or yellow cups. To complement them all, Roper underplanted little tommies (Crocus tommasinianus), scillas, chionodoxas, and grape hyacinths. Like daffodils, these bulbs are reliably perennial and tend to naturalize, or spread by seed and offsets, making a richer display each year.
In naturalized plantings in lawns, it is important to give the bulbs plenty of time to form flower buds for the next year’s blooms before you mow down the foliage; at Chanticleer, the Orchard Lawn is generally not mowed until June. The same idea goes for bulbs planted in garden beds: Let the foliage die back naturally, instead of tying it up in bundles or cutting it off, to assure a good flower display the following spring.
If you’re planning to add more bulbs to an already-naturalized area, take a series of pictures in spring when all the bulbs are in bloom. When the time comes to plant in fall, refer to your snapshots so you can dig in new bulbs without disturbing existing ones.
Alliums, or flowering onions, pop up almost everywhere at Chanticleer. Among 40 different varieties, the cultivar ‘Purple Sensation’, with 4-inch flower globes on 30-inch stems, “has almost become a signature allium for us,” says Eric Hsu, plant information coordinator. “It blooms in that May gap,” he adds, meaning just as tulips are fading and before summer flowers really come into their own.
Alliums, along with daffodils, are among the bulbs that most reliably return year after year, says gardener Dan Benarcik. In the Tennis Court Garden, he uses alliums to visually tie together the many planting beds through the spring and into early summer. “They’re like a thread of color and texture,” he says. “If you have two or three allium cultivars, then you have multiple threads.” The Tennis Court’s exuberant beds do in fact feature 13 different alliums.
To capture the effect of the Tennis Court plantings, paint a winding line (or lay a snaking hose) through a bed—or through several beds—and plant alliums in clusters along either side of the line. The goal, says Benarcik, is to achieve “a naturalistic dispersion, a randomness with aesthetic intent.” If you don’t want to plant in a line, Benarcik offers another method: Grab a fistful of bulbs, turn
your back on the flowerbed, toss the bulbs over your shoulder, and plant them where they fall.
The gardeners rely on just one splendid bulb in Chanticleer’s Creek Garden, where tens of thousands of the camassia variety C. leichtlinii ‘Blue Danube’ bloom in wide, undulating ribbons. The bulb is perfectly suited to the conditions of the site. “Camassias do not like dry spots,” says Hsu. “Average soil and good moisture are crucial.”
Early in spring, gardeners mark the perimeter of the camassia plantings with tall, dried fronds of cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea). “It’s a discreet but attractive way to edge and define the plantings,” Hsu says. When the foliage dies back and the time comes to mow the area, usually in early June, the fern fronds are simply removed.
The flowerbeds near Chanticleer’s main house are not as formal as might be expected, Benarcik says, but are rather “traditional spaces planted in a more informal way.” He designs tulip plantings in these beds as if he were holding a loaded paintbrush. “Make the bed a canvas and throw color on it,” he says.
Most of the tulip bulbs in Chanticleer’s more traditional planting areas are dug up and discarded after they bloom, so the color combinations change from year to year. But the gardeners are also working to incorporate good perennial tulips, as well as daffodils, around the main house. In the Flowery Lawn, which is near the swimming pool, ‘Golden Echo’ and ‘Salome’ daffodils bloom over a period of weeks with the tulips ‘Yellow Emperor’, ‘Golden Apeldoorn’, and ‘Roi du Midi’. These varieties have been blooming together magnificently, without replanting, for five years.
The most successful bulb combinations, Benarcik insists—and the other gardeners would likely agree—are always based on colors you love. One final bit of advice, from a garden known for its unconventional plantings: “Be confident, be bold,” Benarcik says, “whether you’re planting bulbs on a country estate or in a tiny city garden.”
Marty Ross is a garden journalist in Tidewater, Virginia, where she grows and shows blue-ribbon daffodils and many other spring-flowering bulbs.
More Bulb Wisdom from Chanticleer
1. When trying out a variety that’s new to you, plant just a few bulbs at first. If you like the look and they do well, add more to the display in years to come.
2. Voles love to eat little bulbs. Sprinkling the planting area with blood meal will help repel these rodents and lessen their depredations.
3. Horticulturist Joe Henderson’s favorite tool for planting small bulbs (and tackling many other gardening tasks) is his Lesche digging knife, which has a 7-inch offset blade and a hand guard. This useful tool is available from many online sources.
4. Intersperse spring bulbs among perennials such as asters, ornamental grasses, and euphorbias. These plants will grow up and help hide bulb foliage as it fades naturally.
5. Plant bulbs three to four times as deep as they are tall; this is deeper than usually recommended. This practice protects bulbs from rodents and helps them dry during the summertime (which is beneficial since most bulbs do not like to be in wet sites). As a result, they will be more likely to come back year after year.
6. Fresh spring salad greens look terrific planted with tulips. Try ‘Black-Seeded Simpson’ lettuce, kale, curly mustard, red mustard, or bok choy.
7. Plant annual flowers with flowering bulbs, but wait until spring to set them in the ground. As bulb foliage emerges, step carefully into the beds to tuck in annuals such as alyssums, violas, and lobelias. “Being able to tiptoe among the tulips is a valuable skill,” says Eric Hsu, Chanticleer’s plant information coordinator.
Plan Your Visit
Chanticleer’s 2017 season begins on March 29. The garden will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours to 8 p.m. on Friday evenings from May through Labor Day. Admission is $10 for anyone 13 or over, and $8 for PHS members. Guided tours are available by reservation.
786 Church Road
Wayne, PA 19087