How would you like to mow less, while growing a more beautiful landscape that supports native bees and other pollinators? You can easily pull off this miracle by naturalising spring-flowering bulbs in spots where you can also adopt low-mow methods in late spring. If you mow around bulbs until they die back in late spring, they complete their life cycles and come back to bloom year after year.
Naturalising bulbs in a low-mow lawn is not a new idea. In the Netherlands, gardeners have been interplanting grasses with little bulbs for more than 300 years. Stinzenplantens originally gave wealthy bulb collectors an opportunity to show off their collections and beautify their properties with very little fuss. Today, public walking routes can take you to many of these preserved plantings of bulbs naturalised in lawns.
But there’s more. A number of recent research studies listed by the Xerces Society’s Bee City USA show that insects benefit when lawn areas are diverse, and are mowed to different heights at varying times. So, when you mow or trim around little bulbs in late spring, and come back a few weeks later and cut them down, you maximize the space’s hospitality to insects early in the season, when other food and habitat are in short supply.
Best Bulbs for Naturalising in Lawns
I have been poking little bulbs into grassy areas for years, and have learned much from my successes and failures. First, you need mostly early bloomers that never grow tall, hence the generic name of “little bulbs” for crocus, muscari, scilla, jonquils and other petite spring-flowering bulbs. All are widely available as dormant bulbs for planting in autumn and early winter.
Start with crocuses, the best bulbs for naturalising in lawns. Sometimes called snow crocus because of their early bloom time, “Tommy” crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus) also are of little interest to squirrels and other animals. But even large-flowered crocuses have an amazing ability to persist in tough places, from full sun to dry shade.
Dwarf jonquils like ‘Tete-a-Tete’ are also fine choices for naturalising, and often grow into bright, eye-catching clumps. Scilla, also called Siberian squill, blooms later than most jonquils and crocuses, comes in deep blue, and is hugely attractive to bees. I also love muscari (grape hyacinth), which can be blue, pink, or white, depending on variety.
Don’t forget to look into native species when naturalising bulbs. Native to the Eastern US, dwarf crested iris is an ideal choice for late-mowed lawns in many areas, and the same is true of camassia, native to the Pacific Northwest. Bluebells and snowdrops are native to the British Isles, and both are fantastic bulbs for naturalising in low-mow lawns.
Grow Bulbs in Difficult Spots
My biggest mistake has been scattering little bulbs in too many places, including sites that were too moist and rich for little bulbs, which will form thick, non-blooming clumps when conditions are too good for them. Choose a site that is on the poor side, for example parts of your yard that are dry, shady or full of rocks. Edge areas that get sun in winter and spring followed by summer shade are perfect.
Don’t be afraid to try tough spots like gravelly slopes that are difficult to mow. Every spring I am surprised by a clump of purple crocuses that thrive where even weeds struggle to grow. Speaking of weeds, if you are naturalising bulbs in a weedy spot, make a practice of dropping in little bulbs in place of pulled weeds during the autumn and winter months.
Plan with Mowing in Mind
When naturalising bulbs in a low-mow lawn, planning ahead for when and how you will mow is essential. Most spring-flowering bulbs make their green growth after they bloom, so you must allow time for them to complete this cycle, during which they pack away specialised cells and food reserves for next year’s flowers.
To tidy up the yard and keep the rest of the lawn from getting too weedy, I like to mow or trim around areas where naturalised bulbs are growing in spring. A little edging work makes the plantings look more purposeful, so it’s no problem to let them go until early summer. Some species hold their green growth a long time, so when mowing day does come, we set the cutting blade at its highest level, or use the string trimmer. We continue to cut high all summer, because our low-mow lawn includes white clover and several other bee-friendly plants that do well with infrequent mowing.
Photo at top of page courtesy of iBulb.org.