Planting bulbs in fall is one of the most hopeful acts in gardening. It is an act of faith, since we must trust that those unprepossessing lumps already contain the flowers of spring, snugly wrapped in what looks like tattered brown tissue paper.
Unlike most other kinds of plants, bulbs are almost foolproof, as long as we give them the little that they need. Indeed, many old-fashioned bulbs have been reclaimed from abandoned homesteads, old cemeteries, and places where nature has had its way for decades or even centuries.
Among the longest-lived bulbs are certain narcissus, single and early tulips (and some species), old-fashioned hyacinths, scillas and squills, bluebells, crocus and crocosmia. Big, fancy hybrids are usually less tenacious, requiring frequent feeding and plenty of elbow room without root competition.
To make most bulbs happy, give them a place in full sun, with good drainage. Most bulbs are not super picky about the kind of soil you offer them, as long as water runs off freely. Places that puddle in winter are not suitable for most bulbs, which rot readily when not in active growth. Spring and fall bloomers do best when placed outside of irrigated areas, since summer water often rots dormant bulbs.
Daffodils (narcissus) come in many sizes, from a few inches
to close to 2 feet high. Most bloom in yellow or orange, cream or white,
but modern hybrids can be tinged with pink, rose, coral, salmon, or apricot
and bi- or tri-colored to boot. Daffodils are extremely long-lived and
naturalize easily in dry meadows. For daffodils, as with most bulbs, the
key to longevity is to allow the foliage to ripen and fade completely
before removing it. All the stored energy in the leaves and stems is directed
to the plump storage root (the bulb), where the flowers of the year to
come are formed.
Spanish or wood bluebells, sold as scilla, endymion or hyacinthoides, look like loosely packed hyacinths, flowering in blue, pink, white or lavender. Also rugged and long-lived, these handsome, fragrant flowers have strong takeover tendencies that make them perfect for a tough spot but troublesome in a hospitable one.
Hardy cyclamen, which look like flocks of silken butterflies, appear deceptively fragile. They do quite well in dry, rooty shade, where they can dry out properly during their dormant season (summer). Their storage roots look rather like a withered hockey puck. These are really corms and should not be buried deeply. Place the side with shoots upright and the side with tiny rootlets facing down. If you can’t tell, set them on their sides, cover them shallowly with compost, and the plants will right themselves as they grow.
In a damp spot, you can plant Tulipa sylvestris, a fragrant, pale yellow species from English water meadows, as well as checker lilies, Fritillaria meleagris, with heathery tweed, checkered flowers in shades of pink, rose, lavender and cream. Good bulbs for deer country include any kind of daffodil, as well as strongly fragrant hyacinths, gladiolas and dahlias. Deer adore tulips, so keep those tasty treats in pots on a protected deck or porch.
After planting, cover bulbs with compost and a good
sprinkling of corn gluten. This will keep weed seeds from sprouting and
provide steady nitrogen during the winter, when roots are growing vigorously
underground. Mark each planting spot with a circle of yellow corn gluten
to prevent yourself from disturbing the slumbering bulbs until they rise
in glory come spring.
©2007 Caliope Publishing Company
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