list Bulbs: Plant Spring's First Color Show Now

A bulb is a compact and compressed plant-to-be. It is an underground foods storage organ, a geophyte, and inside, it includes buds, stem, flowers and leaves. The package is small, and from it will emerge an herbaceous flowering plant. The spring or summer display is a noticeably larger, beautiful miracle of form, color, and often fragrance. For months it remains quiet, resting, waiting, hidden beneath the soil, and then arrives from seemingly nowhere.

As the soil warms and we edge our way out of winter, the cheerful and bright colors and textures of bulb flowers lift our spirits above and beyond any thoughts of the winter we're leaving behind.

Remember the expression, "More bang for the buck"? It used to be applied to annual bedding plants, but I think it might equally be applied to hardy bulbs. There is no better investment in adding beauty to your landscape than hardy spring and summer flowering bulbs. They will provide years of enjoyment and require only a few simple steps to keep them performing at peak.

Now is the time to plant spring and summer flowering bulbs. Your display next year may begin as early as March, move into April and continue well throughout the spring and into the summer, depending on your choices.

Before we get into some of the nitty-gritty of bulbs and their planting, I want to clarify some differences between some other geophytes that also provide spectacular blooms later in the year. In addition to the true bulb, there is also the corm, a rounded swollen stem surrounded by a papery tunic or cover; the rhizome, a thick horizontal stem which grows roots from the bottom; the tuber, a fleshy underground stem that has buds and can develop roots anywhere from its surface; and the tuberous root with a pointed bud on top and roots that develop from the bottom; the minor bulbs include a collection of several species of small hardy bulbs, mostly spring bloomers.

To avoid confusion I will give a few examples of each: true bulbs include daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and lilies among others. Crosuses and gladioli are corms. Tubers include tuberous begonias, caladiums and anemones. Dahlias and daylilies emerge from tuberous roots. Bearded irises, callas and cannas have rhizomes. The minor or little bulbs include crocuses, snowdrops, winter aconites and grape hyacinths.

When planting bulbs for display, avoid planting in rows. Instead, plant bulbs in groups or clusters so the overall effect will show drifts or sweeps of color. Minor bulbs are smaller, less expensive, and tend to spread and naturalize rapidly. Buy lots of these if you can. You'll never regret it. All of the bulbs require moderate amounts of sun and excellent soil drainage.

In our typical heavy clay soils, it might be advisable to prepare the soil bed in advance by incorporating sharp sand, peat moss and some compost or well-aged manure or other organic matter. If you can, loosen and work amendments into the top eight inches of soil, or import some soil for a raised bed and work the amendments into that.

To my way of thinking, if you are in search of a spring spectacle that will repeat itself year after year, you need to do some serious planning. If, on the other hand, you have a developed landscape with some color and interest already, and just wish to add more color, spring and summer flowering bulbs can fill the bill admirably.

In either case, here's what you need to consider: hardy bulbs will flower from very early spring continuing into early summer. The plants will range from short (at or below 12 inches in height) to medium (12 plus to 24 plus inches in height) to tall (24 plus to 36 plus to 48 plus inches in height) depending on the bulb planted.

If you have open space or a large expanse you wish to devote to bulbs, it helps to establish a ground cover. When the bulb blossoms are finished, the groundcover will help mask the remaining bulb foliage. There are many hardy, low-growing ground covers that will do well in partially sunny spots that most bulbs will favor.

Several Vinca minor cultivars, once established, would provide a great groundcover into which you could plant the bulbs of your choice. Consider also low growing Ajuga, Euonymus 'Kewensis', Gaultheria procumbens (Common Wintergreen), Mazus reptans, Sedum spurium, and Convallaria majalis (Lily-of-the-Valley) and Iris cristata, these last two consider as among the bulbs. All of these are low growing and spread easily and relatively quickly. Don't overlook the perennial herbs that hug the ground, too. Any and all of these could be planted with your bulbs.

With a huge nod to beauty, that abstract quality presented by Mother Nature to us sentimental beings, the full range of colors from hardy bulbs will run from yellow to orange to red to white to pink to blue, lavender and purple. Delving into this color palette requires some order and discipline to avoid what might result in a muddy or unpleasant picture.

I have in the past suggested the use of a color wheel. It is available from most arts and crafts stores. It is an invaluable aid to those not inspired by colors and their artistic combinations. Some of us have an intuitive sense of what color goes with what, and some of us need some help. The color wheel and the concept of color harmonies, compliments and contrasts will inspire the uninitiated and the experienced alike.

Plant to your hearts content. Beauty will follow. But, first a few hints for success: When choosing bulbs, select larger, firm bulbs with no bruises or noticeable physical damage. Loose or torn outer papery skin (tunic) is not a problem. Plant your bulbs pointed end up, in a well-drained area that will receive partial to full sun. Plant them as soon as possible after bringing them home.

Large bulbs will produce the largest flowers and should be spaced several inches apart, and their pointed top should be planted five to six inches deep. Small bulbs can be just a few inches apart, and generally two to three inches deep. Consult the package instructions.

If your property has a history of turf or garden damage from squirrels, mice, or chipmunks, consider placing the bulbs into a hardware cloth enclosure for protection. Steel wool might be easier, or even animal repellants can be placed in the hole with the bulb. Plant your bulbs carefully to avoid injury. Get them into the ground before or not long after a hard frost, so bulbs have adequate time to develop sound roots.

Now, to the bulbs! There are more than two hundred daffodil and narcissus bulbs available ranging from large trumpet, short and large cup, double, multicolored, fragrant, miniature, and so on. There are equally as many magnificent tulips available including among some of the more striking ones: parrot, Darwin, double early, peony-flowered, multiflora, lily-flowered, triumph, and many others.

There are small and large flowering crocuses, miniature irises, and hyacinths. There is also galanthus, chionodoxa, ipheon, anemone, scilla, camassia, muscari, fritillaria, and allium, the exotic flowering onion. For June, July and later blooming, there are an abundance of lilies: Asiatic hybrids, Asiatic pixies, heirloom species, Chinese trumpets, and Oriental lilies. The number of candidates boggles the mind. Your pocketbook and your labor may be the true deciding factors.

For the very best results, monitor your planting regularly. In spring, try to remove spent blooms as soon as noticed. This practice accomplishes a couple of things. It conserves the bulbs energy by preventing stores going into seed production. It allows the remaining foliage to continue to supply new energy to the bulb through photosynthesis. Never remove the foliage until it withers and turns yellow.

Once your bed or bulbs are planted, fertilize with a complete fertilizer such as 5-10-5 or 6-12-6. Note the high number is phosphorous. If you are not comfortable using commercial fertilizers, and lots of organic matter is already incorporated, bone meal can be worked into the soil at planting time instead.

There are very many sources of bulbs including your local nursery and garden center. Two of several mail order companies that I've had very satisfactory results with are Brent and Becky's Bulbs and White Flower Farm.

None of this is rocket science. It is nearly guaranteed, but don't forget most blooms will be vulnerable to four-legged pests. The exception here would be the daffodils, narcissi and alliums.

If, however, you haven't time this year to do it all, prepare the ground now. In the spring plant it with annuals and/or vegetables to keep the weeds from colonizing the area. By next fall, you can pull the stand-ins, and replace them with your fantastic collection of bulbs that you've carefully selected after much study. Don't forget a nice layer of fluffy mulch, two to three inches deep. Come spring, you'll be ecstatic!

From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on October 24, 2007

© 2007 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.