The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 6, 2006


The Country Gardener Planting bulbs for blooms next spring

As a child I often helped my Mother or Granny plant bulbs. I grew up in England where gardening is taken very seriously. Every autumn we planted bulbs. You can never have enough of them.

As a child I was puzzled by the fact that spring bulbs were sold and planted in the fall not spring. Seeds, especially ones given to children to plant, start growing in a few days, so why plant something before winter rather than after winter? Now I know that bulbs are shipped around the world during their dormant state in the summer, and planted in the fall so they can get cold treated to stimulate the blooming and grow some feeder and anchor roots to prepare for that stressful flowering stage. Bulbs like to be dry in the summer. In Carlisle that is perfect! Summers are usually droughty. It's less work for the gardener to have the bulbs retreat into the soil to wait for early spring where there is more consistent moisture and lack of competition with weeds and the leaves on trees.

It is a great pity that many critters have discovered that some bulbs are nutritious and taste good. Tulips must taste like candy to voles and squirrels. Burrowing creatures dig down to eat the bulb while rabbits, woodchucks and deer wait for the leaves and flowers to emerge from the earth; then they eat them. Munch, munch, gone. Carlisle gardeners have to go to elaborate lengths to grow tulips. A motivated gardener can cage tulip bulbs in hardware cloth or soak each bulb in hot chile pepper and egg concoctions. After they emerge in early spring they need to be sprayed with deer repellents. It is a lot of work. The tulips are beautiful, but sadly even when not eaten they usually just last that one year. I planted tulips one fall about six years ago. They were breathtakingly beautiful. Now they are gone.

Daffodils must taste nasty. Nothing wants to eat them. Yea! They also get bigger and better each year assuming they remain in the sun. Allium, members of the onion family also are distasteful to critters. I've had good luck with snowdrops, crocus and Siberian squill too. Perhaps the voles are eating some of these bulbs, but they also multiply and self-seed enough that they somehow keep up with the feasting horde.

How far apart?

I read all instructions that come with bulbs but then modify them to reflect my taste in garden design. The depth of planting is important, and I do not argue with the printed advice. It is the "distance apart" that is usually misleading. Official instructions have far too big a distance between bulbs. I dig a 12-18 inch wide hole and fill the hole with a dozen or so bulbs quite close together so they act as a bouquet. No soldiers lined up in a row. No gaps to be filled in ten years from now. I go for instant impact in clumps of color scattered here and there throughout the landscape.

Where to buy bulbs

Over the years I have bought bulbs from various mail order companies, Agway, Costco, and New England Nurseries in Bedford. I have not found a big difference among them, other than their choice of offerings. There is nothing wrong with "tried and true ordinary" large yellow daffodils. They are a delight. Now that I have a great number of large yellow, white and bicolor daffodils, it is great fun to find six-inch tall miniature fragrant daffodils from a mail order company. They are so cute!

Alliums tend to flower later than other bulbs, so they are high on my "must have" list. Some are as big as softballs. Six of those mamas give a tremendous impact to the landscape. Drumstick allium, planted in clumps of a dozen, sway in the breeze to add movement to the garden. Even the ordinary chive has lovely edible flowers. One of my favorite allium varieties has white flowers that bloom in August. Not many things are blooming in August, so it is great to have a reliable and tidy allium to perk up the late summer border.

The downside to all these lovely early spring flowering bulbs is that after flowering, the foliage needs to remain untouched to "manufacture" food to be stored in the bulb for next year's flowers. With tiny grape hyacinths, Siberian squill and crocus this is usually done so gracefully that they can be planted anywhere, even in the lawn, and there is nothing the gardener need do but let nature take its course. It is the daffodils and the large allium that have uglier dying foliage that may inspire the gardener to actively do something to hide the unattractive dying leaves. Plant them a good distance from your front door so as not to invite close scrutiny. Perhaps the best solution is to have a nearby plant with spreading leaves to cover up the fading bulb foliage.

Do plant some bulbs this fall. Solicit the help of a child. You might not save time with their assistance, but you will be planting memories, as well as the promise of colorful spring flowers.

Editor's note: This is Alison Saylor's final column for this growing season.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito