Summer-planted Bulbs Can Brighten Up Your Garden

Number Of Types Available Has Grown Tremendously

March 24, 1991|By Mary Gold | Mary Gold,Contributing writer

There is something very satisfying about planting a large bulb.

Burying a handful of living plant that is a bulb or tuber inspires confidence that can't compare with sowing a thimbleful of tiny seeds. Itisn't going to wash away in the rain to get plucked out by birds.

Later, when the stalk emerges from the earth, the soil cracks anderupts as a large shoot, complete with leaves, bursts free. There's no down-on-your-hands-and-knees to find the first sign of life.

Aswith fall planted bulbs, the selection of summer planted bulbs available to home gardeners has grown tremendously in the past few years. Some of them are technically tubers, others corms -- fleshy stems that resemble true bulbs. The "non-hardy" or "tender" label placed on many of them has an ominous ring to the gardener who wants to plant a sure thing.

These terms, however, do not mean difficult to grow. Non-hardy and tender, in the case of these summer bulbs, means that theplants and bulbs, if left outside, will probably not survive the winter to bloom again next year.

But look at it this way. Most of theplants bought for summer bloom are non-hardy. Impatiens, geraniums and petunias give pleasure for the season and are left to die in the fall. New plants are bought to replace them the next year.

Summer flowering non-hardy beauties like gladioli and dahlias can be treated in the same manner. However, there is an attractive bonus. Their corms or tubers can be dug up in the fall, stored and replanted next spring. In the case of the dahlia, the plant will multiply significantly,adding many more potential plants each season.

Both dahlias and gladioli have been bred and cultivated in gardens for many years. Luther Burbank, among others, bred gladioli for their variety of color and because they were easy to propagate.

The large-flowered plants we are most familiar with had their origins in southeast Asia and assumed great popularity in the 1930s. The range of flower color and of flower shape available is astounding. And there are now miniature forms, dainty cousins of the familiar four-foot types. The fan of flat-pointed leaves that accompany the flower give it its nickname, the sword lily.

A top-size, 1 3/4-inch diameter gladiolus corm will produce two, sometimes three tall spikes of radiant color. The flowers, up to 25 to a stalk, open in succession from the bottom to the top. Under good growing conditions, smaller, less expensive corms also will produce excellent single spikes.

Experts suggest planting the corms at two- or three-week intervals through May and June for a longer period of bloom. Informal clumps of plants, all of one color, seem to look best in a garden setting.

The distant ancestor of cultivated dahlias grows in the dry mountains of Mexico. Seeds were collected in the late 1700s by a Spanish scientist and sent back to Europe. Some eventually made their way to Sweden and to botanist Andreas Dahl, who worked extensively with them -- thus their genus name.

Although dahlias belong to the compositae, or daisy family, and many species produce daisy-like flowers, the American Dahlia Society lists a dozen types, according to flower shape. There are cactus-flowered, peony-flowered, ball-shaped and pom-pom types, to name a few. Colors include every hue except blue. Plant size varies from border and window box-sized, under 12 inches, to shrub-like five-footers.

Started as spring-planted tubers, dahlias take little time to get started. Depending onhow early they are planted and on the variety, they will start blooming in June and July. They "take a breather" here in central Marylandduring the hottest weeks of August.

But don't give up. They return to full power for the best bloom-time -- September and October.

Dahlias and gladioli need a sunny, well-drained location to do their best. Both can be planted as the danger of frost passes in late Aprilor early May.

They may like, but don't require, a carefully applied side dressing of fertilizer low in nitrogen (the first number of three on the fertilizer bag). Water thoroughly during dry periods. Insect and disease problems are relatively rare.

Gladioli corms should be planted four to five inches deep, and four to six inches apart.

For harvesting the largest corms in the fall, the foliage should not be removed with the flower stalk when cutting, but left to manufacture food for the plant for at least six weeks. Then cut off the tops, dig up the corms, brush them off, and let them dry out for a week. They store best in a dry, frost-free garage or basement.

Incidentally, the corm dug up in the fall is not the same one planted the previous spring. It is a new one that formed on top of the now-shriveled plant. The tiny "cormels" that surround the base of the larger corm eventually will grow to full size, but it takes at least two seasons. Most home gardeners discard them.

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