Nothing soothes the soul like spring – and nothing announces the season like a clump of blooming tulips, a blur of grape hyacinths, a swath of crocuses, a blaze of daffodils, a secret clutch of shy, purple or white fritillaria.
But planting bulbs? Ah, now that’s the supreme act of faith, proof that you’re sticking around. It’s a testament that you’ve now reached adulthood and can handle delayed gratification.
Because bulb-planting season is often cold, sleety, brown, gray, anything but colorful.
No matter. When gardeners talk about bulbs, superlatives pop up a lot.
“They’re like the best kind of guest,” says Anna Pavord, the British author of the photo-packed, 544-page, 8-pound tome Bulb. “They leap up into flower and delight you, and then tuck themselves away. They’re about pure delight and pleasure.”
Although their frilly petals nurture our own longing for color, the most commonly planted bulb, the tulip, had it rough early in its evolution. Pavord has ridden with native tribesmen in the harsh Tien Shan mountains, a range that rambles across Central Asia and stretches from northwest China across Kyrgyzstan. It’s a shale-strewn place, full of terrifying extremes of temperature, says Pavord.
“Only bulbs will grow out there,” she says. “They are wonderful at exploiting niches.”
Pavord’s book takes readers on a visual tour of all kinds of bulbs from all zones, and tells their history, heights, native lands, hardiness zones and preferred conditions. It would be a shame to limit a garden to tulips and daffodils. Got clay, for example? Try the towering, late-blooming camassias for a sunny spot. Put tiny Siberian squills under trees. Both of these bulbs like clay.
Got wind and tricky, split-personality springs? Try dwarf irises, which poke their undaunted heads up through mulch despite late snowstorms. Try them in a berm or rock garden, where their spotted throats and splashes of yellow can cheer you on at eye level. Venture on to the wildflower tulips, at heights of only a few inches. Try Tulipa tarda in a bed of blooming veronica. Got deep, nicely draining stuff? Go for the terra-cotta or yellow blazes of crown imperials – Fritillaria imperialis – for a really big show.
Pavord knows her soils. She grew each of the more than 600 bulbs in the book, despite living on clay, a site where she spent 40 years before moving to a new home in Dorset, England, which has “the kind of soil gardeners only get when they go to heaven.”
Her answer to soil challenges? Pots, which let you give a bulb exactly the kind of soil it needs. She plants dozens of tulips in pots, leaving a space for them in her garden beds. When the flower heads were just beginning to show, she’d plop the pot in the spot, letting the surrounding plants hide it and raising the blossoms up where they could be seen.
When the blooms are spent and the foliage has completely died, she says, replant the tulips in the vegetable garden and see whether they’ll enjoy it there. Replant the pot with spring and summer annuals, and return to its spot in the bed. She does the same with hyacinths that were forced indoors in spring, lining them out around vegetable beds to keep her company during spring weeding. “Once they’ve settled,” she says of hyacinth-family bulbs, “you’ll get much better height from them.”
The only bulb she doesn’t recommend for that pot-first, garden-second routine is the lily. Leave them potted. “(Lilies) can stay dry through the winter, but put them in a garage or shed.” Leave the messy top foliage where it is; “we’ve become entirely too tidy-minded.” Then when the aboveground plant is truly dried and brittle, “sometimes I scratch away the top 2 inches of compost and put fresh on.” Bring the pot outside again in the spring after the freezes and frosts are done.
Don’t forget the many beautiful bulbs that can be forced indoors to brighten long winters. Pavord pots up hippeastrum – sold mostly (though incorrectly) as amaryllis in the United States – each year for her 10 grandchildren. They’re not hardy, but can flower year after year if the spent flowers are trimmed off. Take the potted bulb outside in good light, and continue to water and fertilize the foliage as it slowly dies back. Bring back indoors in fall once temperatures cool to about 48 degrees; then stop fertilizing in November and December. In mid-January, refresh the top 2 inches of soil and start all over again. Pavord likes the quality of bulbs she gets from garden centers more than those you see in boxed kits.
Historic cemetery planting
Al Gerace knows what bulbs need. He donated 30,000 tulips this past spring to be planted at Denver’s Riverside Cemetery, a site founded in 1876 and battered by the 2002-2003 drought that devastated its turf and much of its other vegetation.
The bulbs were left from 2009, when early, frequent snows thwarted landscapers’ plans across a broad swath of the country. Gerace, owner of Welby Gardens, kept them in cold storage over the winter.
“It’s not a normal time; we generally don’t recommend that people do this,” he says of the late-March planting. But the bulbs were checked over by volunteers before being plunked into the ground at the historic cemetery. The bulbs included Oxford-type tulips in orange, lavender, a very dark purple, red, yellow and white.
“For the first spring they may be a little short, due to the lateness and the forcing, but they should be 15 to 20 inches tall and naturalize here,” he says, meaning the bulbs will propagate themselves and stick around for years, continuing to delight those visiting relatives interred at the cemetery. “Their biggest enemies are voles and grubs, and there are not as many of those here in Colorado. And they’ll benefit from the lack of turf.”
But just how, you might ask, does one get 30,000 bulbs planted – in half a day?
You get 30-some volunteers.
“Most people think you dig a hole, you put a bulb in, you fill up the hole, and do it all again,” says Patricia Carmody, executive director of the Fairmount Heritage Fund, which also oversees Riverside Cemetery. “With 30,000 of them, that’s not going to work.”
Instead, Gerace arranged for two trenching machines – one large, one small – to arrive on the site early in the morning,
before the planting volunteers arrived.
The bulbs came by truck, and crews began mixing them in the bed of a large truck. “We were sorting through them as well, because any time they’ve been stored through the winter, there’ll be a few bad ones,” Gerace says.
Then the crews repacked the mixed colors into the crates – a thousand in each – and began distributing them along the main road into the cemetery. Some volunteers placed bulbs in the 4-inch deep trenches; others walked along and covered them up and firmed the soil.
“We were all standing there, staring at each other, going ‘I can’t believe we’re done,’” Carmody says. “That’s the difference between gardeners and landscapers – it’s just about scale.”
On your own property, if you want a big swath of spring color, it’s worthwhile to pay attention to weather – and the sales. Pick a time when the ground is moist and cold, but not frozen solid. Gather a crew and assembly-line it: Mix the colors first, then have one person run a tiller through and lay down any amendments to improve drainage. Have a second person place bulbs, and a third replace the soil. Don’t forget to water-in the new plantings – and you might as well mulch while you’re there to keep out late fall or early spring weeds.
In her pots, Anna Pavord likes to mix two parts rich, composted soil with one part gravel or some form of well-draining grit, and she says you can crowd them tight and forgo planting them quite as deep as recommended (although with tall bulbs in a narrow pot, put rock in the bottom so the pot isn’t top-heavy). But she loathes “layered” pots, planted with multiple types of bulbs that grow through one another, and calls the effect “ghastly.” You’re always stuck looking at some dying foliage that way, she says. Stick to one type in each pot, and group the different pots.
And don’t forget the marvelous varieties of indoor bulbs that can get you through a long, cold, gray winter.
Susan Clotfelter writes and gardens in northern Colorado. Read her blog at www.DenverPost.com/diggingin.