Tuesday, November 16, 2010


      Our UPS driver hates us. We’re always ordering awkward, bulky, weighty things that are unavailable locally. The all-time worst hernia-inducing delivery was the time we got 500 feet of heavy-gauge aluminum paver-edging. That particular guy may have changed jobs soon after. I suspect one of the women drivers assigned our route begged for a transfer: we haven’t seen her for a while.
      Nonetheless, a professional gardener does what she has to do. So every year, once in the spring and once in the fall, our current UPS employee heaves a sigh and straps on his back-brace. Why? Because the bulbs have arrived. Crates and crates and crates of bulbs.
      Ten of them waited for us on the front porch when we got home last Wednesday.
      Every garden needs bulbs. Ranking right up there with lespedeza at the top of the easy-care plant pantheon, bulbs offer more bang for the buck than any other ornamental I can think of. Nothing else gives so much for so long with so little effort on your part. Put them in the ground, feed them after they flower and don’t think about them again until those first leaf tips poke through the soil, letting you know that this year’s blooms are on the way.

Daffodils and summer snowflake
(Narcissus 'Sweetness' and
Leucojum aestivum)
       Bulbs are magic, like my sons. What I mean is, I came to parenthood late, on purpose, and while living in comfortable circumstances, allowing me the luxury to be fully conscious of all the small quotidian miracles that comprise gestation and birth. I mention this now because, to me, planting bulbs feels akin to that wonder-full experience. The leaps of faith and imagination required for putting such inert-seeming things as bulbs into the ground with the full expectation of vegetative life-forms emerging to bloom are nothing short of Zen revelation.
      Airy-fairy stuff aside, the former schoolteacher in me insists on definitions. Bulbs, an omnibus reference to that group of perennial plants with some underground structure for the storage of water and nutrients, include: true bulbs, like daffodils, which are actually modified buds; corms, like crocus and Anemone blanda, are annual bulbous stems that produce new corms from buds on the old ones; and tubers, like dahlias, caladiums and bearded iris, are really swollen stems, branches or roots. Together, they’re known as geophytes.
      To better your chances of bulbine success, here are some tips-gleaned-from-past-screw-ups for making your experience a positive one.
1.      Buy as locally grown as you can. John Scheepers, van Bourgondien and the rest of the Michigan-based growers send out beautiful catalogs, but their climate is a little different from mine(!). A favorite source for Southeastern-bred stock is Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, out of Gloucester, VA. Another good Southern source is Marlboro Bulb Company, from Greenwood, SC. (Links provided at right.) Keep in mind that big box stores order their plant materials regionally, even though growing conditions within a region can vary significantly. You may think I’m splitting hairs, but provenance really makes a difference.

Star flower
(Ipheion uniflorum 'Jessie')
 2.      Don’t stint on quantity. When you buy daffodils or crocus, think in terms of hundreds rather than tens. Nothing’s more pathetic-looking than five lonely specimens in a (relatively) vast landscape. A grouping of five or ten lilies always makes more of a statement than one or two. The only time I countenance buying one of anything is when it’s an experiment and pricey—say ten dollars or more per   bulb, like oxblood lily.
3.      Don’t stint on quality, either. Buy the biggest, firmest bulbs you can find. If you mail-order, choose the largest size offered and always deal with companies that have been recommended by someone you trust. Like me. Remember—you get what you pay for. Don’t expect high performance from a “bargain” bulb.
4.      Take planting-depth instructions with a grain of salt. In places where the ground never freezes, there is no frost line to get below. When Tim and I relocated to Oak Island, one of the first things I did was plant about 150 daffodils to the recommended depth (for Schenectady) of eight inches. Well, along about the end of May, the foliage finally clawed its way to the surface, where it promptly burned up. I have since learned that we only have to dig holes twice the height of the bulb: if your daff bulb is two-and-a-half inches high, put it in a five-inch-deep hole. With many crocus and other small bulbs, you can get away with an inch-and-a-half or so. In my soft, sandy soil, I can poke them down with my fingertip. Don’t make more work for yourself, especially when it’s counterproductive. (Hybrid lilies are the exception to the rule. They need to go down eight to ten inches to encourage sturdy stems.)

Spider lily
(Lycoris radiata)

5.      As for amending the soil when planting bulbs, what Tim and I do is to mix about three pounds of bulb food with a 50-pound bag of composted manure (Black Kow is what’s most readily available to us). We throw in enough to cover the bottom of each hole, then broadcast the remaining mixture over the newly planted bed. If you choose to use bulb food alone, it’s better not to put it in the bottom of the hole; the fertilizer may burn the bulb’s new roots. Distribute appropriate amounts on top of the soil, according to package directions. What does Kathy use? I like Bulb Booster and Bulb-Tone. I counsel against bonemeal, as dogs, raccoons, possums and other omnivores will smell it and dig up your bulbs to get at it. A client of ours awoke one morning to find raccoons had dug up and tossed each of the hundred daffs she’d planted the day before (poisonous in all their parts, daffodils aren’t on anybody’s favorite foods list) in order to snack on bonemeal. Aggravating, to say the least.
6.      If you have swamp-mucky, clay or caliche soil (and even if you don’t), try this no-dig planting method for daffodils espoused by Brent Heath, whose family has been in the bulb business for generations. Rake back whatever mulch covers the area you’d like to plant; toss and/or arrange the bulbs on the surface; cover to an appropriate depth (depending on the height of the bulbs) with the Kow mixture referenced above, soil conditioner, and/or organic mulch; broadcast bulb food on top; go attend to other things until spring. Tim and I tried this method for the first time in a woodland setting—’way easier than digging 450 five-inch-deep holes in a root mat! It worked like a charm. We utilized the no-dig method again for a mass planting in a very wet area—350 daff bulbs “planted” in 45 minutes. The spring display was spectacular.
7.      Daffodils make great bouquets. But pull the flowers, don’t cut them. Slide your fingers all the way down the stem and pull the daff up from the bottom, revealing the white base below the hollow part of the stem. Hollow stems are unable to take up water. Pulled flowers last longer in the vase because their drinking apparatus is less impaired.
8.      Feed your bulbs right after they’ve finished blooming by topdressing with our Kow-and-bulb-food mixture. Why then? Because you know for sure where they are at that time. It’s a popular myth around these sandy parts that bulbs—especially daffodils—stop flowering because their roots have pulled the bulb too deep into the soil; ergo, they must be dug up and raised. Balderdash. Bulbs stop flowering because they are hungry. So feed them, already. Is that too much to ask?
9.      All bulbs manufacture food for the next year’s bloom through their foliage, so please let the leaves to die back naturally before removing them, no matter how unsightly. Although dying foliage looks better when tied into knots or bunched into rubber bands, these are not helpful practices. They make it harder for the plant’s vascular system to do its nutrient manufacturing and distribution work. To minimize the unattractiveness of the late stages, interplant your bulbs with perennials like irises, ornamental grasses, lantana and daylilies, or plop annuals on top of them. That way, the ugly foliage acts as mulch for the later-emerging plants instead of being an eyesore.

Tulipa turkestanica
        I hope I have piqued enough interest to make you run out to add some bulbs to your garden. (If the ground's not frozen, it's not too late.) As  plants go, bulbs lead the pack for ease of care and (usually) good manners. They come in an astounding number of sizes, bloom colors, bloom shapes and bloom times, which shall be the topic of my next post. They are relatively inexpensive. And best of all, planting them enriches your spiritual life.
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