Have you already gotten your first catalog of spring-blooming bulbs, to be planted in the fall? Are you drooling? It's hard not to. Take a minute to catch your breath, put away your credit card, and give some thought to your spring and summer bulb display. Planting bulbs is a traditional fall family activity in much of the world, but it pays to take a little time to plan before you dig.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 12, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Take a deep breath. Breathe . . . in . . . out . . . relax.
I'm always tempted to start ordering, 20 from this catalog (+ 5 bonus bulbs, absolutely free!), 15 from this co-op, 25 from this other catalog, and then trade for eight more with a DG pal, and before I know it I have 73 unrelated bulbs to plant heaven-knows-where. By the time they're supposed to bloom next spring or summer I've totally forgotten what they were and where they were supposed to come up! Oh, and don't forget the stuff I picked up at the "big box" garden center and never planted at all!
This fall, it WILL be different, I promise. Here are my resolutions:
I resolve to keep my color scheme in mind
Do you have a color scheme? I did, once. I don't care for yellow, not even yellow and blue, so I have whitedaffodils as well as yellow ones. The orange species tulips looked smashing near the blue Dutch iris, to me. My dearest husband bought purple (!) tulips on a trip for potting soil and nails, so we planted them very far away from my orange and blue combination.
I resolve to remember the times when my garden looks bleakest
I've planted many tiny early bulbs in places I cannot get to in early spring! That's not good planning. The lovely Iris reticulata live out their entire lives at the end of a path which is impenetrable to wheelchairs before April or May, unseen and unappreciated when they bloom in March!
Right now, when these gaudy spring bulb catalogs start arriving, is when my garden is looking pretty darn good. Well, maybe a smidge of something in the back left corner would be improve it. But no, instead of concentrating on making my peak summer garden perfect-er, I need to visualize how it will look in the end of August, when the sweet autumn clematis is finished and we're about to have our anniversary party. What would punch up that area and bloom in late August? A tall Allium? A blue or red Anemone? I need to figure out when it would bloom before I enter my cardholder name in the "bill to" field.
And what about November? Or something blooming in March where I can see it between the house and the car? I resolve to consider bloom times of every bulb I purchase.
I resolve to be realistic about my zone
Much as they look adorable on the cover of bulb-sellers catalogs, it's not realistic for me to make the commitment to freesia or ixia. It just isn't. I should save my money for things that have a fighting chance in my climate: crocus, daffodils, chionodoxa, muscari, allium. (I have confessed my zone-envy already, elsewhere!) Until my greenhouse and the full-time gardener arrive, I had better stick to outdoor bulbs, maybe a few amaryllis (Hippeastrum) in the winter.
On the other hand, gardeners in warmer zones will need to purchase pre-chilled tulips and crocus, and treat them as annuals. However, on the west coast and south, I understand that freesia, one of my favorite hothouse flowers, can grow year-round in the ground. So can those amarylllis! And 'Rilona' would perfectly fit my blue/orange scheme! Rats!
I resolve to be careful about where I get my bulbs
Before I let my child go to a friend's house, I talk to the parents of the friend and make sure they know what is going on. I will research my bulb sources that way. It is so much easier than talking to parents on the phone. Just click on the Garden Watchdog and start reading reviews.
These days, catalogs that started out as seed companies are selling bulbs. Companies that specialize in drought-tolerant plants or water garden plants are selling bulbs. Companies that used to specialize in perennials are selling bulbs. I guess any company with a "connection" in the Netherlands can sell bulbs. But whenever possible, I prefer to buy bulbs from companies that specialize in selling bulbs! They've been doing it longer, they know how to care for, store and ship the bulbs properly.
Before you fall in love with a lily, look it up in PlantFiles. Is it actually as tall, short, pink or white as the catalog claims it is? Read the words of people who have grown it in your area.
Thus, I resolve not to be lured in by $25 in free bulbs and to buy my bulbs from a reputable source.
As you're probably aware, flowering bulbs live out their entire bloom cycle based on the energy stored in the onion-like bulb. The bigger the bulb, the more flowers. Bulb-boosting fertilizer you may plant with them doesn't help this year's flowers; it's for next year. When catalogs talk about how many cm their #2 size bulbs are, that's how many centimeters across their second grade bulbs measure. Compare that to their first grade bulbs, #1, or to companies that don't tell you what size their bulbs are at all or even what the botanical name is. "Jumbo daffodil pack for naturalizing" could contain just about anything!
I resolve to get to know my bulbs before I plant them
There are a number of embarassing and possibly even humiliating episodes which I will not relate in detail. I will say only these few words: most anemone corms (apparently) benefit from soaking before being planted, planting tulips deeper to increase hardiness has a limit (I didn't take a picture—I'm hoping the problem will correct itself with nobody else needing to know about it), and those who who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it...
I resolve to pick a budget before I pick my bulbs
A budget? This actually should have been at the beginning, but I didn't want you to give up and stop reading. Those DG friends who plant 2000 bulbs or even 500 don't do it my way, a few here and a few there and suddenly they end up with 75 bulbs to plant. No, they had a plan and a budget. They bought them all at once, so they got a price break, and they knew how much they were spending so they weren't (too) shocked at the total. Which brings me to my last (and most difficult) resolution ...
I resolveto have no more homeless bulbs
I want to have a spot in mind for every single bulb before I buy it! Some mixed in with the perennials, for sure, but which ones mixed in with which perennials? If I think something is darling in the abstract, it may look dorky in a circle around a dormant peony! To repeat (this is myself I'm talking to now), I don't want to find myself in April with 10 gladiolus to plant and no idea where to put them. I want to have a spot in mind for every single bulb before I buy it!
Have fun and good luck
Ladies and gentlemen, start your credit cards. The bulbs are here from Holland for our purchasing pleasure. Go cautiously and carefully. New, exciting, highly-hyped items are often sold out, so shop early but NOT often. I hope you enjoy filling next year's garden with flowers from bulbs you plant now.
PHOTO CREDITS GO TO LarryR, Cottage_Rose, raydio and Ulrich.
About Carrie Lamont
Carrie clicks on EVERY link. She has two beautiful daughters, and has been married for twelve delightful years. Her husband works for an airline, facilitating Carrie's frequent need to travel. She has a masters degree in Music, and hums to herself as she gazes out wistfully at her full-sun containers from her air-conditioned interior. Carrie just moved from Massachusetts to Texas and is still recovering.