Notes From The Backyard - September 2003 ...Bulbs!

Notes from The Backyard

Planting bulbs has got to be one of the great leaps of faith in gardening! Most seeds do not take very long to germinate, and even planting a dormant perennial seems somehow more substantial―at least you have the empty pot and plant tag to reassure you. But bulbs are another matter. We are supposed to believe the odd looking things in the package are just…sleeping. There is a little Monty Python in all of us!

Yet come spring, or close to it, the bulbs left waiting in those packages―at least the ones not already eaten by the neighbourhood Squirrel Posse―will provide joy, inspiration, and a reminder to all that winter is finally over.

This spring, the joy and inspiration in my own garden lasted for nearly one week. At which time, two muddy, marauding 4-year-olds presented me with two full bouquets, a few of the flowers still actually dangling their bulbs.

In spite of these trials and tribulations, I love bulbs and I will share with you some of the things I have learned along the way.

Bulbs will not flourish in those same packages you shove into the cardboard box in the garage, promising you really will plant them as soon as you have the time / inspiration / proper tools / whatever.

Buy only as much as you are really prepared to plant. For example, I have a number of perennials still waiting on what my erstwhile calls Death Row (two of them still from February). I am anticipating most of them will get a reprieve if it ever rains again.

I have spoken to a number of avid gardeners, and take comfort from the fact that I am not alone in my procrastination. It is no different for bulbs. I fall in love with that new variety, in those heady, ambitious moments of sunny, clear days, then balk when the rainy, cool planting time rolls round. The poor dears sit in their little packs until they begin to look pathetic. Which brings me to my next point…

Make sure your bulbs are healthy. Give them a gentle squeeze. Just like checking fruit in the store. Gently! Make sure the bulbs are firm, not squishy. If you have left them in their little packages too long, you should plant them anyway, if only out of guilt. Just do not expect any thanks. Or a response.

Once you are ready to start, the handy rule–of-thumb for planting depth is as follows: three times as deep as the bulb is wide. Really. So, if you are planting the mini Narcissi and they are only one inch thick, then you sink them to a depth of three inches.

The following are some general tips. Do fertilize your bulbs with a good bulb food, when you plant them, and again just as they bloom. Avoid fertilizers high in nitrogen. It will encourage greenery, but may hinder the flowering of your bulbs. Ensure proper drainage. They’ll rot otherwise. Most importantly, do not cut the green foliage once the flower itself has faded. That is how the bulb builds up its storehouse of energy for next year’s bloom. So treat those left over leaves kindly!

If squirrels are a problem for you too, avoid Tulip and Crocus bulbs, or group them with a stinky Fritillaria. You can also scatter bloodmeal wherever you have planted (they avoid it), or imbed a section of small-loop chicken wire to deter the little sweeties. My neighbour suggested placing nuts in an area far away from your bulbs.Could be amusing and probably cheaper than the Tulips. In busy squirrel areas, be prepared for some losses. It happens. Nuff said.

Scatter all your bulbs on top of the soil where you are planning to set them in. You can outline them with bonemeal if they’re small. This way, if you change your mind you will not have to dig them up to reposition. If you have a memory like mine, you will have forgotten where planted the first batch and end up slicing a few of them in half.

Do take pictures. It is the easiest way to remember last year’s layout. Garden labels work well, but seem to disappear with regularity―at least in this gardener’s plot!

Plant in clumps or swaths, for swooshes of colour with more dramatic impact. In groups of seven to ten for a more natural look. Easier to dig that way too! If, for example, I am planting Daffodils, I will just dig a big hole and place them all together at the appropriate planting depth, and only an inch or two apart. Smaller bulbs, I plant a little closer. The group-planting approach also works if you have caved to the wishes of your kids and bought the mixed Daffodils. They still look more effective and natural set out in this way―even if they have different colours and bloom times―than if you’d dotted them singly about the garden.

Try layering your bulbs at varied depths for an extended bloom time. This is most effective with Daffs and Tulips. It also works wonderfully in containers. Last year, I planted 100 red Tulips in a barrel. Because of their relatively short bloom time, especially in rainy windy weather, I planted groups of them as three separate layers, one under the other. One at a depth of nine inches, one at a depth of six inches and one at a depth of three inches. The more shallowly planted bulbs came up first, of course. Then the next batch and then the third. I had good, solid colour for about a month and a bit!!

You can mix your groupings and layerings too by adding different colours and types of bulbs. For example, you might plant early blooming Crocus on top of later blooming Alliums. You could create a colour wave ― hot pink Tulips at the deepest layer, mid pink at the second, and white pink at the shallowest level. Your Tulips will look like they are developing a deeper pink as they age.

Companion plantings can be those of other bulbs, perennials etc. Use contrasting colours for drama: the fresh lemon-yellow of Flower Carpet Daffodils with bright purple-blue of Muscari armeniacum; groups of similar colours for a softer look, such as pale pink Tulips in a carpet of pink Chionodoxa. My wonderful checkered Fritillaria meleagris was lost in the garden until I planted it between the silver-leafed Stachys and the silver-blue leaves of the Helictotrichon grass. The lighter colours made the dusky purple flowers pop.

Consider looking at bulbs a little differently this season. Think of your favourite colours or colour combinations, how tall you want them to be and when you want them to bloom. Then select accordingly. Be different! Choose a weird bulb…you cannot beat Fritillaria for weird! Or go for something really dramatic…Allium giganteum. My neighbour asked when I was going to put out those purple pom-poms-on-a-stick this year. I pointed to where they were just getting ready to bloom... Those are real?! he said, shocked. Thought you were making crafts with your kids again, says he. Hey! What a great idea…But I digress.

Do not forget fragrance! Hyacinths, Narcissi and Tulips…oh my! The nicest treat after a long winter. Or one that seems long anyway. Plant fragrant plants where you are likely to pass by them. In groups, of course―the perfume is stronger that way. And forced bulbs that you plant inside are worth their weight in gold . The perfume of Paperwhites is amazing.

Most importantly, have fun this Autumn! Mix it up. Do something different!

Cheers to you and yours, Laurelle

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