It is mid-September, and signs of spring are everywhere. I mean this literally. At a popular general-merchandise store, banners exhort, "Plant Now for Spring!" Well, to be sure, now through early November is the time for bulbs. Any day, you will see the aisles of garden centers and hardware stores lined with bins and bags of spring-flowering bulbs, along with enticing, full-color pictures of the flowers you can expect. They can be excruciatingly hard to resist! After all, you can always find somewhere to put in just a few more. For what would autumn be, without these ritual promises we make to the coming spring?
Popular spring-blooming bulbs planted in our area during the fall include crocuses, daffodils (properly, narcissi), jonquils, tulips, grape and Dutch hyacinths, and dwarf iris. All of these can be found with little trouble at numerous stores and are relatively inexpensive. They are also dependable and practically foolproof, and therefore form the backbone of most gardens in spring.
Leading off the garden year are the small, pastel snow crocuses, which can sometimes be found blooming in February in a sunny, sheltered position. They are small, so they are best placed where you will see them at close range. I have mine nestled in a corner of the front walk by the porch, where I can see them often.
The larger Dutch crocuses that follow, in vibrant purple, yellow, white and lavender, are wonderful planted in masses, either in beds or scattered in the lawn. If you choose the latter, and do not want to wait to mow the lawn until their foliage matures and dies (so that they will flower again the next year), you should replant them every fall. They are cheap and plentiful, so this is not a great problem.
Narcissi will be the next to appear. The showy trumpet daffodils are classics. Among well-known, dependable varieties are the glowing yellow "King Alfred," the ivory "Mrs. R.O. Backhouse" and bicolor "Carlton." Dozens more varieties can be found, and choosing among them is one of the gardener's pleasantest problems.
There are also interesting mixtures sold for naturalizing, with different types and colors and staggered bloom times so that you can easily have daffodils and jonquils blooming for six to eight weeks, from mid-March to early May.
For the specialist who is looking for something a little different, cunning dwarf varieties such as "Yellow Hoop Petticoat," "Ice Wings" and "Jetfire" are available for rock gardens. If old-fashioned, smaller-flowered narcissi suit you, consider trying cyclamineus narcissus, "Peeping Tom." And don't overlook the the multiflowered Tazetta and triandrus hybrids. These are wonderful plants for the border and they naturalize with abandon. The pure white "Thalia," and soft, bicolor, yellow "Minnow" are especially good.
Both crocuses and narcissi should be dug up and split every three years or so. This will ensure that the bulbs will grow large (the larger the bulb the bigger the flower) and will increase your planting. Bulbs left together too long eventually dwindle in size and die out, or produce only foliage and no blossoms.
Timing for tulips
Tulips are a great favorite, and I plant several varieties so that I have some blooming from late March to June. The earliest kinds are the species tulips, such as Kaufmanniana and Greigii. While smaller than the better known Darwin and Triumph tulips, they are very long lasting, and make a pretty mix with daffodils. The Fosteriana tulip "Red Emperor" is especially lovely planted to show off against white, "Mount Hood" trumpet daffodils.
There is an extensive selection of the larger, traditional tulips to choose from. These can be broken into three major groups. The first are the Triumph tulips. These have long, sturdy stems, which make them ideal as cut flowers. However, they are short-lived in the garden, tending to become drastically smaller and disappear in subsequent years. They are splendid to use for color effects, which you may want to change from year to year, for they are better pulled up and put on the compost heap after blooming. Replant new bulbs in the fall. Many tulips with "broken" or streaked colors are Triumphs. They are also the best for greenhouse or indoor forcing.
Darwin tulips and Darwin hybrids are my favorite. They are long-lived in the garden, they flower in mid-spring, and are also nice for cutting.
For those desiring a new spin on the classic tulips, there are Parrot tulips with fringed edges, and double flowered "peony" tulips. You may have to look at a nursery or in a specialty catalog for these. They are definitely different and eye-catching.