P. Allen Smith: Dream Big with Summer Bulbs

Summer bulbs bring dramatic color, texture and pattern to your garden.

Tubers, corms and rhizomes.

 Photography by Jane Colclasure and Mark Fonville


Most of us want ginormous, stupendous blossoms and magnificent foliage to match … and lots of both. If this describes you, then planting summer bulbs definitely is the way to go. To me, bulbs are a “pre-packaged flower,” and all it takes is a little bit of patience and work to unwrap these glorious jewels. Thank goodness there’s a wide variety to choose from, so dream big this summer.

dahlia tuber

A dahlia tuber before planting.

Dahlia ‘Hawaii’

Dahlia ‘Hawaii’


Dwarf Asiatic lily ‘Orange Pixie’

Dwarf Asiatic lily ‘Orange Pixie’

Zantedeshia (calla lily) is a gorgeous cut flower, and the foliage adds texture in the garden.

Zantedeshia (calla lily) is a gorgeous cut flower, and the foliage adds texture in the garden.

What’s All the Hubbub, Bulb?

When it comes to showy spring flowers, true bulbs like the daffodils and tulips are a no-brainer. Bigger and bolder summer blooms come from pseudo-bulbs, such as rhizomes, corms or tubers. Although not quite considered true bulbs, they are herbaceous plants that provide underground food storage for new plants with similar results.

True Bulbs: storage scales around the central leaves and flowering stem like an onion in daffodils and tulips.

Rhizome: thick, horizontal stems appear root-like in cannas or the calla lily.

Corm: solid and dense, swollen underground stems characteristic of elephant ears.

Tubers: fleshy with underground stems as found in dahlias and caladiums.

Late spring or early summer is the best time to plant. A good rule of thumb is to plant when soil temperature is between 40 and 60 degrees. In general they should be planted close to the soil’s surface, about 1-to-2 inches deep. Well-drained soil is preferred.

Design for Impact

The texture and pattern of blooms and foliage when planning beds, borders or containers will help determine the layers of depth in your garden and, in turn, create rhythm. Visualize your plants with an eye for texture. Create borders and arrangements that are dramatic and complement your blooms and colors.

There are no rules to color combinations but your own — if you love a combination, use it. Use your home’s exterior as a guide for color selection. Go a step further and create a canvas for your summer bulbs. I often choose evergreen hedges and shrubs as a backdrop because green is an excellent garden neutral. Remember, color creates mood. Vibrant Asiatic lilies add instant energy to a space while cool-hued calla lilies are relaxing. You may want to combine a large block of color with two other, smaller areas of colors in a 2:1:1 ratio. Think big and bold even when it comes to your color selections.

Don’t be timid — plant twice as many dahlias, lilies or autumn crocuses than you originally planned, in several varieties, to produce the wow factor and boisterous blooms you want to achieve this summer.

Great Foliage

When it comes to majestic foliage bulbs, you can’t showcase your garden any better than with elephant ears, caladiums or cannas.

Elephant ears give a striking tropical effect that make a great showing as a backdrop or as a center of interest in any garden. Elephants ears do exceptionally well in containers because they will thrive in a variety of lighting conditions.

Colocasias prefer full sun and plenty of water, making them the perfect choice for water gardens. Alocasias, on the other hand, like a little shade. Caladiums, like elephant ears, are tropical bulbs with spectacular foliage. The broad leaves come in green, white, red and pink colored variations. Since they are not fussy about sun, I use them in combination with ferns and hostas to highlight shady corners in the garden.

Canna will provide a bold, green canvas for any blooms you choose. Their foliage alone provides texture, visual weight and stunning color. To get cannas ready for the garden, I start them in containers and let them grow indoors until after the last frost, then safely transplant them in the garden.

Abundant Blooms

If you want big, bodacious blooms this year, dare to fill your garden with a multitude of eye-catching dahlias and lily variations.

Dahlias are sub-tropical showstoppers, and there’s no better way to enjoy the robust blooms of dahlias than to plant them in large drifts in a flower border. Try combining 3 to 5 plants in the same location with full sun. Dahlias also make an excellent cut flower.

Lilies, such as the Asiatic and Oriental, need plenty of sun. Of all the modern lily hybrids, the Asiatic is the easiest to grow, but Oriental have large, delicate, curved petals and a sweet fragrance. Lilies have three main cultural requirements: deep, loose soil; consistent moisture; and cool roots with sun on the leaves.

Calla lilies, though similar in appearance, are not considered true lilies. Nevertheless, they are stunning additions to your garden and prefer full sun or partial shade. I usually wait until the threat of frost has passed and the soil has warmed before planting. To produce lots of blooms, try feeding your calla lilies once a month with an all-purpose fertilizer.

Remember: Think big blooms, big color and big garden attitude. Be bodacious!

Winter Care

Winter care for summer bulbs is simple, and not time-consuming at all, if you follow these simple tips:

Mulching is sufficient at times. Mulching once the ground has frozen will help you retain moisture in the soil and protect the bulbs from any frost damage. This may be sufficient with corms, such as the elephant ears. It will also maintain the dormant stage during the winter.

If you’ve decided to dig up your summer bulbs at season’s end and save them for next spring, you should keep them warm during winter. Do not expose your bulbs to freezing temperatures — pack them away in a cool place to maintain dormancy. Avoid watering or getting them moist as this may interrupt the hibernation stage and promote rot.

Once spring arrives, your diligence will be beautifully rewarded with magnificent blooms and foliage.


1 Comment

  1. by calla lily bouquet ebay on February 13, 2016  2:56 pm

    Lily with the Valley Pros: Available year round Delicate bell shaped flower

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