Welcome Spring, Welcome Bulbs
I’ve been paying attention to snowdrops and crocus since I was 9 years old — I recently found entries in my diary that tell me so. My entry for March 7, 1956, in its entirety was this: “Spring is getting here at last the snow drops are in bud + will bloom in a few days.” Then on April 5 I wrote, “Today our first crocus was in bloom it is very pretty.” I still pay attention to crocus, and generally note when they come into bloom. But now is the time to decide where you should plant bulbs next fall.
Here’s what I do. I wander around my property each year in the spring to see what spots are bare of bulb flowers. I bring along those white plastic markers used for labeling and write “add crocus here,” for example. Then in the fall when it’s time to plant more bulbs, I don’t have to rely on my memory.
When planting bulbs, I label what I’ve planted. That way I’ll see what has performed well, and be able to buy more. For example, I’m always eager to get color in the garden at the same time that the snowdrops bloom. Glory-of-the-snow is one plant that overlaps with snowdrops, but is a bit later, as is scilla. This spring I saw that a crocus I planted last fall, “Blue Pearl,” is blooming with my snowdrops, so I’ll buy 100 of those for fall planting. I bought them at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs — I know because they include tags with each bag of bulbs.
Writing this in early April, I haven’t seen any of my winter aconite appear, though I would have thought they would be up by now. It is a very early bright yellow flower that has one-inch-wide, six-petaled flowers. I’ve grown it before but lost it to cold or rodents or poor drainage. I’m still optimistic that it will show up.
I tend to blame bulb failure on drainage problems even though I mix in lots of compost at planting time and favor hillsides. South-facing hillsides are great for early bulbs as the snow melts off weeks earlier than on north-facing plots. But rodents might be the culprits, too.
A bulb plant that I’ve considered fussy is a low-growing iris, Iris reticulata. It is a lovely iris that blooms near ground level and has medium-sized blue, purple or (sometimes) yellow flowers. Doing some research I found out why I thought they are fussy: after they bloom, the bulbs divide, producing several little bulblets. These won’t bloom for a few years. So I need to plant some every year until I have a mature colony. I also read that they like soil that dries out well in summer, such as in a rock garden or sandy hillside.
My lawn is full of snowdrops that have planted themselves. I assume that they produce seeds that wash into the lawn with early summer rains. The bulk of my snowdrops are planted on a hillside above the lawn. But you can plant early spring bulbs in the lawn, too. Just don’t plant daffodils or anything with large leaves because you won’t be able to mow the lawn where they are growing until the leaves yellow and dry off — around July 4. Bulb plants need to recharge their batteries, if you will, by getting sunshine and storing energy.
Little bulbs like snowdrops, crocus and grape hyacinths have short leaves that disappear early and won’t disrupt your early mowing. You can always set the lawn mower blades high to protect the leaves if they are still green when you need to cut the lawn.
Grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.) are great little flowers that come in many different shades of blue and purple. I’ve planted many dozens in my day, but find they tend to lose vigor and disappear with time. So I plant them again. This spring I bought a pot of them at a garden center and have been enjoying them immensely in the house. Later, when the soil is thawed, I’ll plant them outside. I keep the pot in a cool space indoors; if they get too warm, they flop over.
I treat tulips like annuals. I plant 100 most years in a bed that I reserve for them — and later zinnias. If I had depended on bulbs planted in 2012 for this year, the number of blooms might be just 50, and maybe 25 the following spring. So I don’t bother to coddle them. In fact, I often pull the flower stem instead of cutting it, as I can get an extra 2-3 inches of stem for my vase, and I love tall tulips. I compost the spent bulbs. I find that adding a few pennies to the water in the vase helps the tulips last longer before losing their petals.
Daffodils are slightly poisonous to deer and rodents, so they aren’t eaten — and can bloom for years. You can plant them in open woodlands and they will do fine. I grew up with daffodils planted along paths in our woods, and I still delight in the memory of them. By the way, if you forced paperwhites this winter, don’t bother planting them outdoors — they’re not hardy here.
Bulbs are a great investment. Most come back year after year, bringing me pleasure before the garden gets going.
Henry Homeyer is a gardening coach living in Cornish Flat. His website is www.gardening-guy.com.