8 Summer Bulbs That Every Garden Needs

These eight beauties are perfect for filling gaps in the perennial show

Fine Gardening – Issue 206
summer bulbs

Summer bulbs are a bit of garden magic, a trick you can keep up your sleeve to transform beds that have become too sleepy and predictable. They are perfect for adding color early or late in the season, the times when you are most likely to have gaps in the perennial lineup. Bulbs and tubers are easy to tuck into containers, and they will almost instantly transform a foliage-focused design. Here are a few favorites that would be enchanting in any garden.

‘Conca D’Or’ orienpet lily

Enjoy its golden glow at the height of summer

‘Conca D’Or’ orienpet lily is a comment-causing late-summer bloomer that will dazzle you with its warm, sunny color and intense fragrance just when you and your beds need some refreshment. Its creamy yellow blossoms with deeper yellow centers blend effortlessly into any color scheme, providing a warm counterpoint for cooler colors or a less-intense foil for hotter hues. 

Name: ‘Conca D’Or’ orienpet lily (Lilium ‘Conca D’Or’)

Zones: 5–8

Size: 3 to 4 feet tall and 1 to 2 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, fertile, well-drained soil

Native range: Hybrid


‘Claude Shride’ martagon lily

Small but bountiful blooms pack a punch

‘Claude Shride’ martagon lily is a sophisticated but easy-to-grow treasure for gardeners in cooler climates. Strong 3- to 4-foot stems carry dozens of glossy, deep red flowers speckled in black dots. Martagons may survive in heavy shade, but they need some light to truly thrive. This species is clearly cold hardy; as if to prove the point, one of the world centers of martagon breeding is northern Manitoba, Canada.

Name: ‘Claude Shride’ martagon lily (Lilium martagon ‘Claude Shride’)

Zones: 3–9

Size: 4 to 6 feet tall and 1 foot wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; consistently moist,
alkaline to neutral, well-drained soil

Native range: Western Europe to central Asia


Peacock orchid
Photo: Martin Hughes-Jones/

Add a touch of tropical elegance to any sunny bed

Now officially reclassified as a species of Gladiolus, peacock orchid is a popular, inexpensive summer bloomer with bright white flowers and a distinctive blackish-purple blotch at the throat of each 3-inch flower. The rigid, upright spikes open a few flowers at a time, so the display will be best if you plant it in groups. Some gardeners detect a lovely fragrance from yards away, but I am not one of them.

Name: Peacock orchid (Gladiolus acidanthera)

Zones: 8–10

Size: 18 to 24 inches tall and 6 to 8 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; average, well-drained soil

Native range: Eastern Africa


‘John Smith’ tuberous begonia
Photo: courtesy of White Flower Farm

Treat yourself to a treasure worth its price

After taking a 25-year break from tuberous begonias, I returned with a vengeance when I encountered the incomparable Blackmore and Langdon tuberous begonias at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. Decades of in-house breeding and selection have created flowers of absolute perfection, such as the ruffled, scented blooms of ‘John Smith’. These tubers are an invest­ment, comparable in price to a nice bottle of wine at your favorite restaurant. I always grow investment begonias in clay pots, which can breathe, so overwatering is unlikely. These long-blooming beauties appreciate being fed every other week with a 20-20-20 water-soluble fertilizer.

Name: ‘John Smith’ tuberous begonia (Begonia ‘John Smith’)

Zones: 9–10

Size: 12 to 30 inches tall and 18 inches wide

Conditions: Partial shade; evenly moist, well-drained, fertile soil

Native range: Hybrid


Summer hyacinth

Find a spot for a fresh and unexpected hue

Effortless to grow but too seldom seen, summer hyacinth is a midsummer bloomer that produces strongly upright towers of green-tinted bells in hot sun. It will appreciate a spot with some winter warmth from a house foundation, a large boulder, or a similar heat sink. At the colder edge of its hardiness range, a thick, protective layer of leaves, bark chips, or pine needles should help the bulbs make it through winter. As a potted summer accent, the slender spikes of apple-green, nodding bells will look best if they are planted several bulbs to an 8-inch pot.

Name: Summer hyacinth (Galtonia viridiflora)

Zones: 7–10

Size: 24 to 36 inches tall and 6 to 12 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; rich, moderately moist, well-drained soil

Native range: South Africa


‘Purple Flora’ gladiolus

Velvety color looks best en masse

I never thought of gladiolus as an “in” plant until I encountered it on an exhaustive tour of English gardens. I noticed that many of the most sensational borders had dotted explosions of solid-color gladiolus in strategic clumps, like fireworks going off amid the borrowed foliage of perennials such as bear’s breeches (Acanthus spp. and cvs., Zones 5–11), bergenia (Bergenia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), baptisias (Baptisia spp. and cvs, Zones 4–8), and ornamental grasses. With its unique hue, ‘Purple Flora’ would be a perfect choice for replicating this effect in your garden.

Name: ‘Purple Flora’ gladiolus (Gladiolus ‘Purple Flora’)

Zones: 8–11

Size: 48 to 60 inches tall and 6 to 8 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; average, well-drained soil

Native range: Hybrid of South African species


Guernsey lily
Photo: Richard Bloom

This autumn bloomer loves a hot spot

Think of Guernsey lilies as temptresses luring you to test their hardiness in your garden, or at least tempting you to spend an autumn day lifting them and providing them with a dark, comfortable spot to sleep the winter away. These beauties prefer well-drained, gravelly, sandy loam, and if they are planted in full sun, especially against a foundation or heat-absorbing rocks, they will feel at home and form clumps. Spring foliage will emerge and fade by early summer. In early autumn, rigid, 30-inch stems will spring up bearing bright pink, white, or red umbels. These make beautiful, long-lasting cut flowers. 

Name: Guernsey lily (Nerine sarniensis cvs.)

Zones: 8–11

Size: 18 to 30 inches tall and 4 to 6 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; moderately fertile, well-drained soil

Native range: South Africa


‘Pink Sapphire’ tuberose
Photo: courtesy of Plant Delights Nursery

Infuse a late summer bed with fragrance

‘Pink Sapphire’ tuberose is the perfect plant to tuck into a few summer pots on your patio. You will forget all about it until summer is nearly over, when its intoxicating perfume will knock you over. If you close your eyes and inhale deeply, it will feel like the ghost of a 1920s Hollywood film star is visiting. Being ­native to Mexico, tuberose requires lots of sun and heat to bloom. Each bulb will produce one strong 3-foot-tall stalk of half-open, waxy flowers that are good for cutting.

Name: ‘Pink Sapphire’ tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa ‘Pink Sapphire’)

Zones: 9–11

Size: 24 to 36 inches tall and 6 to 8 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun; fertile, well-drained soil

Native range: Hybrid of Mexican species


  • American Meadows, Shelburne, VT; 877-309-7333;
  • Easy to Grow Bulbs, Oceanside, CA; 866-725-5361;
  • Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, Gloucester, VA; 877-661-2852;
  • White Flower Farm, Litchfield, CT; 800-503-9624;

Thomas Hobbs and his partner, Brent Beattie, own and operate Southlands Nursery in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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