Letting Go Part 2: Naturalizing Bulbs

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Corydalis solidaWhen I stopped trying to keep all my Corydalis solida separate and let the colors hybridize, this is what I got.

In May of 2011, I wrote a post titled Letting Go Part 1: The Lawn.  It is a well-documented discussion of why gardeners should get rid of their lawns and let what lawn remains go “natural”.  At the time I intended to write another article about letting go of garden beds, but time got away from me.  

Galanthus nivalis, Crocus tommasinianusCommon snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, and snow crocus, C. tommasinianus, naturalized in Charles Cresson’s meadow—a wonderful combination for late winter.

I was inspired to get back to the topic by reading a gorgeous book on bulbs given to me by one of my customers.  Not to digress, but I have the nicest customers who constantly send me articles, bring homemade food, send beautiful cards and letters sometimes hand drawn (one customer is a professional calligrapher), and write complimentary and encouraging emails.  Thanks to you all.


Buried Treasures.

This book was no ordinary gift but a 400 page hardcover book with over 300 color plates.  It is called Buried Treasures and was written by Janis Ruksans.  Ruksans is an internationally famous nurseryman and plant explorer with a mail order nursery specializing in unusual bulbs and located in Latvia.  He has introduced hundreds of bulbs and one of his focuses is Corydalis solida (first photo), which happens to be one of my favorite plants.


Eranthis hyemalis, Corydalis solidaWinter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, naturalized with corydalis and hybrid hellebores.


Eranthis hyemalisWinter aconite in bloom in February.

As I read his book, I was struck by what he said about naturalizing bulbs:

“There are two different kinds of naturalization.  The first kind occurs when you plant your bulbs so they will look as natural as possible.  The second kind is the real thing, which will happen only if your bulbs start to reproduce by self-sowing.… Some of the most beautiful displays happen in spots where bulbs … have been left to develop naturally.”

As simple as this statement appears, many gardeners have trouble applying this concept to their gardens because it requires letting go.  You are no longer in control of where plants appear and how they combine with each other.  I know because it took me years to embrace it myself.


Scilla mischtschenkoana, Dicentra cucullariaTubergen squill, Scilla mischtschenkoana, on the left and Dutchman’s breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, spread randomly at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens.

However, once I let go of deciding where bulbs (and many perennials) could grow, I believe that my garden reached a whole new level of interest and beauty.  Ruksans’s book inspired me to write this post about the bulbs, including tubers, corms, and other bulb allies, that spread well in my garden.  If you feel inclined to let go, here are some of the bulbs that work the best.


Scilla sibericaSiberian squill, Scilla siberica, provides a splash of early brilliant blue and moves all over the garden, even into the lawn.


Puschkinia scilloidesStriped-squill, Puschkinia scilloides, is pale blue and spreads beneath my winterhazel.

Puschkinia scilloidesA close up shot better shows off striped-squill’s elegance. 


Mertensia virginicaThere are hardly any beds in my garden that do not sport Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, in early spring.  All I planted was the original clump given to me by a good friend many years ago.


Anemone ranunculoides, Mertensia virginicaWood anemones, including Anemone ranunculoides pictured above with Virginia bluebells, have been allowed to form gigantic patches in my woodland.


Anemone nemorosa 'Alba Plena'European wood anemones, A. nemorosa, are a favorite, including ‘Alba Plena’.


Anemone ranunculoides, Anemone nemorosa 'Vestal'My woodland with wood anemones and bluebells.


Chionodoxa forbesiiGlory-of-the-snow, Chionodoxa forbesii, is everywhere even the formal beds by the front door.  It doesn’t take up any “room” because it goes dormant and perennials can be planted right in it.


Chionodoxa forbesii 'Pink Giant'‘Pink Giant’ is the pink cultivar of glory-of-the-snow, and it too plants itself wherever it wants.

The most wonderful result of my new relaxed approach came from Corydalis solida, a plant with no real common name.  It is a bulbous corydalis, which comes up very early in spring and dies back shortly after flowering.  Unlike the colorful herbaceous corydalis that never come back due to our hot summers, this corydalis returns year after year without fuss and even self-sows.  Here are a few of its cultivars:


Corydalis solida 'George P. Baker'‘George P. Baker’


Corydalis solida subsp. incisaC. solida subsp. incisa


Corydalis solida 'Blushing Girl'‘Blushing Girl’ selected by Jans Ruksans.


Corydalis solida 'Beth Evans'‘Beth Evans’

All four cultivars are very beautiful in their own right, and at first I kept them separate so they would stay pure.  However, when I let go and nature took its course, the results were amazing.  Now I have a rainbow of corydalis.


Corydalis solida seedling 4-3-2011 7-36-54 PMCordalis solida left to its own devices.

Although I have a large garden, this is not a technique limited to big spaces.  Any garden bed full of perennials or any area beneath trees and shrubs is perfect for naturalizing bulbs.  Just give them a free hand after you get them started.


Nursery Happenings: Our third sale is Saurday, April 26, from 10 am to 3 pm.  Customers on our list will get an email with all the details.  You can sign up to receive emails by sending your full name and phone number to carolynsshadegardens@verizon.net.  Coming soon is a shrub offer.  If you have any shrubs you want, please email me at carolynsshadegardens@verizon.net

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a local retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, U.S., zone 7a. The only plants that we mail order are snowdrops and miniature hostas and only within the US.

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25 Responses to “Letting Go Part 2: Naturalizing Bulbs”

  1. Gorgeous–every one! I planted seeds for Vifginia Bluebells in the fall. I’ll be happy if even one clump forms this spring (I realize it takes a while). And then I will let them naturalize, too–especially because they are native here. Thanks for the encouragement and the beautiful images, Carolyn.

  2. I love seeing bulbs naturalize and fill Spring with color. Your woodland looks so inviting this time of year with such variety. Did the aconite bloom this February? We are so behind here, bulbs may be waiting until May.

  3. Beautiful pictures, naturalized bulbs are one of my favorite “styles” of gardening. I also love corydalis, and yours are exceptional!
    Your plantings have me excited about my own, after three years of nothing they’re surrounded by seedlings this spring! Something missing in previous years came through -even though each spring I looked and looked for seed pods but never found anything.

  4. It took me a long time to realise that letting certain plants go to seed and letting bulbs multiply would make gardening so much easier for me! Drifts of the same plant look so much nicer than a few dotted around.

  5. Hello Carolyn,
    Some wonderful images and ideas here. We’ve also found some of our most exciting effects come from using spring bulbs, but also from anything that self seeds…for all the reasons you mention.
    But my big regret again is seeing how your Mertensia thrives. We’ve tried it and it gets gobbled by slugs….but again I wonder if we just had a not too vigorous nursery cossetted plant, rather than tough self sown ones? Do you have slug/snail issues where you are?
    Glad to see things are catching up at last Carolyn, and hope winter is now a distant memory…

    • Julian, I have found that the stock of Mertensia that is grown by nurseries in pots is very weak and never works. I think they order wild-collected tubers that are already dessicated. The key is to find someone who is willing to give you some from their garden or a nursery that grows it in the ground. Then it must be dug just as the purple tips of the leaves start to emerge from the soil. If it gets even 3″ tall then it is too late and it will not thrive. Many gardeners in our area have trouble with slugs but I do not unless it is an unusually wet summer and even then I just ignore them.
      The weather is still wacky—a high of 81 degrees today and very windy and then a low of 31 degrees this Tuesday.

  6. Naturalising at its very best Carolyn. Your Corydalis looks very striking but I am fairly taken wit your Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica,

  7. Carolyn, your naturalized Cordalis is truly beautiful. I plant a lot of things hoping they will naturalize and help me cover the masses of unplanted ground I still have, especially in my woodland area. As a gardener, I think I am just prodding nature along and giving some guidance here and there. Of course, there are lots of times that nature doesn’t listen to me at all!

    • Deb, I think nature doesn’t listen to me at least 33% of the time and the plant just dies. However, I keep trying and planting more of what works. the bigger the patches the better and if they self-sow they are king of the garden. Carolyn

  8. P.S. I just read your above comment, and your weather sounds exactly like ours!

  9. […] I have it in my head to nurture nice swaths of corydalis color similar to the showcase found in Carolyn’s garden.  The ones I have here (“George Baker and “Beth Evans”) were originally ordered […]

  10. I got rid of the last bit of lawn in 2011 and have never looked back – got room for lots more plants, my woodland area was partly a result of that. It is still a new area and need a good few more years to look natural and more finished, and I can still fit some more plants, some small plants! I have put Scilla mischtschenkoana, Eranthis hyemalis and Chionodoxa forbesii on my list. Thanks for all the good info and lovely photos!

  11. Beautiful displays of letting go Carolyn…my gardens have been let go to naturalize and they are stunning…I have Corydalis solida I think Beth Evans and I love it…I should plant more as they are a delight in early spring.

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