Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands are renowned the world over as one of the largest flower gardens in the world. With a short season, usually open only between end of March to mid-May, the Keukehof is the place to visit if you’re a fan of gorgeous colourful vivid displays of spring-time flowers – crocuses (during the early season, hyacinths, daffodils and tulips.
The intensity of colour and the vastness of the spaces filled with flowering bulbs make Keukenhoff a breath-taking visit. The huge teams of gardeners are at work almost daily, tending to and planting and replanting the bulbs to ensure that the gardens and everything on show is at its prime. While it may not be possible to stretch the flower season for the full three months of March to May, as Keukenhoff does, it is possible with some planning stretch the flowering season at home as long as possible. More importantly there are a few simple secrets to planting the bulbs to recreate that Keukenhof effect right in your own garden.
What is Lasagna planting
Lasagna planting or layered planting is one of the best ways to plant ‘full’ beds. Lasagna planting literally means to plant to large collection of bulbs, usually with the largest at the bottom (mostly tulips), and then layer them with the smaller bulbs closer to the surface – the narcissus and crocus bulbs.
While most gardening advice recommends this method for container planting, we have managed to make it work well in our own flower beds with little effort beyond the initial dig and plant. Three years on, the bulbs and their flowers are still thriving so we would definitely recommended this method of planting for a great spring show.
A couple of important pointers here are no to worry too much about distance between bulbs. The general advice on most bulb packs suggest that the bulbs need to be planted between 10-20 cm apart, we have found that they tolerate just a couple of cm apart. So long as they are not touching, they will find their way to the surface to bloom and grow.
The overall depth of the bed needs to be 30-40 cm deep. This allows for the largest bulbs to sit right at the bottom – usually the tulips and the allium (if you are planting those). Cover with a thin layer of soil then sit the next largest bulbs in the spaces between the first layer of bulbs. Repeat until all the bulbs have been planted. It may seem as if the bulbs on alternate layers are directly above each other, but do not fret. The plants seem to always find a way to grow ‘around’ the bulbs on top.
Preparing to plant
When is the best time to plant spring bulbs
The best time to start planning and planting bulbs for Spring (if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere) is in Autumn. We tend to plant ours later in the year usually closer to late October or early November than early Autumn. This helps to ensure that the bulbs will not be confused by the weather if there is a warm spell in early Autumn.
Pick a dry day to plant the bulbs. You can prepare the bed in advance but planting the bulbs on a dry day helps to ensure that it’s dry when you’re planting the bulbs. This is mainly to ensure that the bulbs start out in the best possible condition. As most are packed in plastic bags
How to prepare the bed
Typically the advice is to lasagna plant these bulbs in a large pot. But we have found that to accomplish the ‘Keukenhof’ effect, it really needs to go in a bed in the ground.
We dug a trench about 30 cm wide and 40 cm deep. The length of the bed is a personal preference but our longest bed is about 10m long. At 30 cm wide, the provision is for about three (3) bulbs deep in width. Lightly add a general fertiliser to the base of the trench and mix the soil well. Also add some fertiliser to the soil that you have dug out. This helps feed the bulbs as they are growing in that first year.
Wide or narrow beds
At Keukenhof, many of the beds are almost three to five times the width of ours (30 cm), some even more in the circular beds. While the blossoming of deep beds in Spring are really breath-taking, before you decide on a wide bed, there a few important considerations. Firstly, the wider the bed, the more bulbs you’ll need. When planting in such close proximity, it does mean that you will work through all the bulbs you buy really quickly. Packs and packs will seem to disappear at a rate, far faster than you imagine and they will typically cover less ground than proposed because of being packed in so tightly.
Secondly it becomes harder to reach right over the entire bed once it is wider than a typical arm’s length. To do so, we recommend using a light weight plank and moving it along, across your loosened bed as you plant. This helps to ensure that the soil is not compacted as you walk across it and that you can still reach over to ensure even planting.
Ultimately the length and width of a flower bed in your garden is something only you can decide on, based on existing space, and what you think would look best in your own garden. Either way, the most rigorous part of this work, is in preparing the bed.
Which bulbs to plant
And now to the fun part – deciding which bulbs to plant.
For a somewhat continuous ’show’ of flowers during the blossoming season, we recommend planting at least 4 different types of bulbs – crocuses, narcissus (daffodils), hyacinths, tulips and alliums. For the earliest possible flowers, add snowdrops to the list. If all goes well, the flowering season will last for at least 8-10 weeks, starting first with snowdrops or crocusses, then the various narcissus and hyacinths, on to tulips and by the time the tulips are over the alliums will start to rise.
Snowdrops and daffodils…
Snowdrops are the earliest flowering plants in the UK after winter, and white they appear light and delicate, they are surprisingly hardy and can take snowfall and frosts really well. There are a handful of commonly sold varieties, all of which are gorgeous in their promise of warmer days.
Crocuses grow low to the ground but offer bright pops of colour, ranging from chrome yellow, to light lilac and even variegated petals. They arrive soon after snowdrops and tend to be less hardy. Often decimated by hard rain, they may not last as long, but are beautiful nonetheless.
Daffodils of the narcissus family, also the National Flower of Wales, tend to arrive towards the end of February or early March. The most basic and common varieties are the earliest with the other varieties flowering slightly later in the season. Mixing and matching different types of narcissus ensures that the flowers will arrive at different times and their different shapes and shades add interest to the overall display.
Hyacinths often emerge early in the season making their way above the surface around the time crocuses appear. However, because it takes so long for their buds to fully mature, they do tend to last a long time in the garden. The varity of deep full colours they come in also make them an essential addition to the spring flower bed. And if you’re a scent lover, definitely make sure that hyacinths are on your list.
The wide range and variety of Tulips make it the main flower of attraction at Keukenhof. Not least becuase tulips are the national flower of Netherlands, even though it is surprisingly not native. Similarly when designing and planting your own spring flower border, make sure to include tulips. They come in a huge range and variety. And of course, there are early, middle and late bloomers, making it possible to stretch out the flowering season. The Royal Horticultural Society page on tulips details the colour, height and flowering season for these flowers.
Alliums show themselves towards the tail end of spring, often fully flowering throughout the early summer. These too come in a range of height and flower styles although generally, they tend to be circular globes with sprays of flowers on each head.
Where to buy bulbs
We tend to pick up bulbs at local supermarkets or discount stores (The Range, B&M Bargains, B&Q) and thankfully have never, so far, found them to be sub-par quality. The challenge tends to be that they are usually of the more common varieties. If you are looking for something special, then it’s worth trying more specialist websites: Sarah Raven, Thompson & Morgan, Farmer Gracy,
Plan the planting
Once you’ve decided on the bulbs that you want in your flower bed, the next thing to do would be to plan the planting. While some gardeners swear by plan drawings, we tend to take a more lackadaisical approach. Mainly because we are quite happy with just a rough idea of the colour combinations where the different flowers and styles sit in relation to each other.
If you would like to create a specific coloured display, or you would like your flowers to come up in drifts according to flowering times, or you want to create a chequered pattern with rows of white surrounding a 3×3 grid of red tulips, then you would definitely want to get your plan on paper.
Caring for your bulbs
To lift or not to lift
We leave the bulbs we have planted in the ground and so far our oldest bed is about 4 years old. However, the flowers show no sign of weakening or reducing. In fact, many tulip bulbs seem to have multiplied although possibly at the expense of the daffodils which seem to have reduced. We have been careful to ensure the following:
Once your bulbs are in, year-on-year you can feed with a liquid feed in early spring and throughout the drier season. Alternatively sprinkle Gro-sure or a general fertiliser lightly around the base of the bulbs in early spring. We do not do much more than a light feed in early spring.
Do not over plant
It is essential not to over plant over the bulbs once they are in the ground. While this means that for three quarters of the year the bed may look empty and deserted, it ensures that the bulbs do not rot under the roots of other plants.
Deadhead but leave leaves intact
Once the flowering season is over, we deadhead the flowers. This ensures that all of the energy made by the plant goes in to feeding the bulb and not into producing seed pods. Learn more on our article: What to do with Spring flowers past their prime.
And so, if you’re a fan of spring bulbs make a space for a bed of gorgeous flowers in Springtime. A little effort in Autumn will pay off nicely in blossoming dividends come next spring.