It’s time to think about spring in the garden
January 13th, 2009
Yes, it may only be the second week of January, but our Noble firs and cedar boughs are now past their prime (and in my case, at least) cut up and ready for recycling in the yard-waste bin.
Onward to spring!
To get me in the mood, I have this inspiring drawing pinned next to my desk.
My friend Jean Zaputil, an artist and garden designer, illustrated and hand-colored it as a most charming New Year greeting.
The scene depicts a songbird perched on top of a hellebore, with the wistful and compelling lines, which read:
“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
[attributed to Percy Byssne Shelley]
Perhaps this saying will give you something to hold onto in the dormant months of winter! Spring is coming soon!
Also getting me in the mood for spring: Country Gardens’ early spring 2009 edition, which just arrived in my mailbox.
I opened it up to find my story about friend and designer Bonnie Manion, owner of Mon Petit Chou, a vintage design business based in Encinitas, California. Bonnie blogs at VintageGardenGal – a cheery and charming spot to visit – you’ll want to do so frequently!
The story, commissioned by James A. Baggett, editor of Country Gardens, is called “Tour de Forced Bulbs,” and it features Bonnie’s designs pairing forced spring bulbs with forced flowering branches – arranged in vintage containers.
Here is the story in its entirety. A shorter version appears in the magazine, along with the step-by-step instructions for planting a container with hyacinth bulbs and pussywillow branches. The story was photographed by Ed Gohlich and produced by field editor Andrea Caughey.
TOUR de FORCED BULBS: Get a jump on the season by pairing vintage vessels with spring-fresh forced bulbs to create uniquely charming displays.
The promise of spring appears in fresh-green leaves emerging from the pointed tops of daffodil, tulip, hyacinth and amaryllis bulbs at Bonnie Manion’s garden in Encinitas, California. Swelling buds on her flowering trees – apricot, plum and peach – hint at new growth about to unfurl into delicate blossoms and tender foliage.
Bonnie, a collector and purveyor of garden antiques and cottage décor, celebrates the season’s arrival by growing a multitude of flowering bulbs. But instead of digging holes in the ground for her many bulb varieties, this clever gardener relies on unique vintage containers for forcing and displaying masses of spring blooms.
She named her vintage design business Mon Petit Chou (translated from French, it is a term of endearment meaning “my little cabbage head”). The whimsical phrase encompasses her love of French antiques and American barnyard implements alike.
“I look for pieces with a history but that can also be repurposed and used in a fabulous new way,” Bonnie explains. She custom-designs her arrangements for special events and commissions, often advising customers about what to plant inside a chipped enamel kettle, a wire market basket or even an intricately-carved wooden drawer.
Come springtime, Bonnie considers flowering bulbs and branches as the perfect partners.
Some gardeners are intimidated by forcing bulbs, but to Bonnie, nothing could easier. “In a way, bulbs are similar to a chicken egg in that they are also one of nature’s perfect self-contained packages,” she says. “They have everything that’s required to bloom into a flower. There’s a lot of simplicity to growing them.”
Using fresh-cut branches, the flower and leaf buds of which have yet to open, requires little effort, Bonnie adds. Whether brought indoors for flower arranging, or used as accents to planted containers, the tiny buds slowly open until flowers gracefully unfurl. “They last quite a while, especially if you keep the branches in water,” she advises.
With a spring palette ranging from soft pastels to bright primary colors, bulbs and branches pair companionably with timeworn artifacts of the past. “I like the yin-and-yang of it. To me, the weathered patina of old containers goes well with the colors of my spring bulbs.”
To grow bulbs in containers, Bonnie begins with the right vessel, selecting an eye-catching piece with a generously-sized opening at the top. Bulbs don’t require much root space, meaning that even a four-inch-deep wooden box is adequate as a planter. Deeper containers can be used as well. “You can keep the soil level low around the bulbs, and use the height of the container to support bulbs such as paper whites or amaryllis, as they grow tall and reach for sunlight,” Bonnie says.
Interesting vintage containers include chicken feeders, tool carriers, old boxes or pails, hay racks, sugar tins, large and small funnels, oil cans, children’s wagons or carts, old urns, kitchen strainers – “virtually any container with a wonderful vintage character,” she says.
Bonnie’s finished designs look spontaneously fresh. “I get a lot of my plant and container ideas from my travels,” explains this vintage garden gal.
She frequents large and small flea markets and other off-beat vintage garden antique sources around the country and occasionally visits Europe for inspiration. “I might see a single potted rose in a Paris flower shop. Or, I’ll discover a dramatic floral arrangement in a London hotel lobby and try to recreate it at home.”
Bulb-filled vintage containers never fail to make a statement. “Put them in a setting in your garden where you need some ornamentation,” Bonnie suggests. “You can have fun bringing old pieces back to life and making them functional again. Get as creative as you like, and your pieces will be uniquely you!”
Try Bonnie Manion’s methods of planting spring-flowering bulbs in an unusual vintage or salvaged container. Look for blooms that will show off the best features of the vessel, such as crimson-streaked tulips that echo the red painted handle of an enamel kettle. Here are some tips:
- Make note of each bulb’s “Plant-to-Bloom” timeframe to coincide with your needs. Bloom times vary greatly and you will need to plan ahead when planting.
- Forcing bulbs in soil, versus water only, will ensure the bulb has the ability to bloom again year after year (replanted in your outside flower beds or another vintage container).
- Use organic or general-purpose potting soil. The soil should reach a level one-inch below the container’s rim. Make sure you have good drainage so that any excess water is able to drip out of the base (you may need to use a saucer to protect furniture or windowsills from water damage).
- Plant dormant spring bulbs directly into the potting soil. Bulbs should be root-side down and pointed-tips upward. It’s okay to pack bulbs “shoulder to shoulder” for a massed and abundant result. In general, you can completely cover daffodil, tulip and hyacinth bulbs with at least one inch of potting soil. The top third of an amaryllis bulb should peek out above the soil surface. Pack potting soil firmly around bulbs to anchor them in place and water once thoroughly to close any air pockets in the soil.
- Bulbs require sunlight to awaken from their dormant state, and begin forming roots, stems, and flower parts under their onion-skin-like sheath.
- Protect the container from extremes (place on a porch or under eaves in milder climates; bring indoors in colder ones). Do not let the soil dry out, but keep it lightly moist. In general, bulbs prefer to be on the drier side, rather than wet.
- If you want maximum versatility with your designs, plant bulbs in small plastic nursery pots. One or two bulbs will fit inside a six-inch, soil-filled pot. You can plant up dozens of bulbs and care for them using directions above. Once they begin to bloom, arrange the bulbs inside larger containers and layer Spanish moss on top to cover your secret.
Check out one of Bonnie’s favorite bulb sources: Easy-to-Grow Bulbs.
Young branches of woody trees and shrubs are supple and pliable in the spring. This makes them easy to weave into trellis-like designs as Bonnie has done. If you cut the branches before their flower or leaf buds open, you can bring them indoors for long-lasting vase arrangements. Better yet, add cut branches to outdoor containers as a complement to spring bulbs. Here are some general guidelines:
- Look around your landscape for inspiration. Do you have a golden forsythia, coral-bark maple, or flowering plum? As many of these woody plants are in need of early spring thinning or pruning, save the cut branches for container or vase designs. A neighbor might also allow you to lightly prune a few branches. In late winter or early spring, local markets or florists are good sources for cut branches, such as curly willow, quince, or witch hazel.
- Use a pair of clean, sharp garden shears, secateurs or loppers to branches at a 45-degree angle. Make the cut at the bottom of a stem where it joins a larger branch.
- You can stick the pointed base of each cut branch directly into the planting soil, at least three inches deep. As you water your bulbs, the branches will soak up needed moisture to keep the buds plump until they bloom.
- You can also arrange cut branches in a water-filled vase. Flower preservatives can keep the water muck-free, but nothing’s better than replacing water daily.