Henry Homeyer: The spring bulb flowers
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 to know what to plant, and where.
When planting bulbs, I label what I've planted. That way I'll see what has performed well, and remember to buy more of the same. For example, I'm always eager to get color in the garden at the same time that the white snowdrops bloom. Two purple-blue bulbs bloom about the same time: Glory-of-the-snow is one plant that overlaps with snowdrops, but is a bit later, as is scilla.
This spring I saw a crocus that was labeled "Blue Pearl," that is blooming with my snowdrops — and before those other two. 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. And I can order them now for delivery then.
This year I am delighted to see that the winter aconite that produced seed two years ago is going to bloom. Last year I recognized the leaves, but it did not produce blossoms. 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, and re-planted in other spots. This new patch will give me 50 or so "free" flowers.
I tend to blame bulb failure on drainage problems, not rodents. I mix in lots of compost at planting time and favor hillsides, which helps with drainage. Wet soil is hard on bulbs. Our cats tend to keep rodents away. South facing hillsides are great for early bulbs as the snow melts off weeks earlier than north-facing plots, and drain well.
A bulb plant that I've considered fussy is a low-growing iris, Iris reticulata. It is just a few inches tall 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 of them. 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 during 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 4th. Bulb plants need to re-charge 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. Whenever I see grape hyacinths for sale in pots at the grocery store, I buy them. I enjoy them immensely in the house. Later, when the soil is thawed, I plant them outside. I keep the pot in a cool space indoors, as if they get too warm, they flop over.
Tulips I treat like annuals. Why? They do well the first year, but quickly go downhill or disappear in subsequent years no matter what I do. I plant 100 most years in a bed that I reserve for them. Later I plant zinnias in the same bed, so I don't bother to coddle them. My corgi, Daphne, keeps the deer away.
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. By the way, if you forced paperwhites this winter, don't bother planting them outdoors — they're not hardy here.
I've been paying attention to bulb flowers at least 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." As a guy who makes his living writing, I no longer keep a daily journal. I tend to document my life now with a digital camera — and this column. Thanks for keeping me writing!
Henry lives and gardens in Cornish Flat, NH. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of 4 gardening books.
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