Spring Surprises

Here's a primer on the ultimate exercise in autumn optimism: planting flowers that will not grow for months.

Focus On Bulbs

October 03, 2004|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

The flower bulb is ingenious. It is homely, compact and self-sufficient. But the beautiful blooms it produces teach a lesson that is universal and filled with hope.

Each one -- tulip, daffodil or delicate grape hyacinth -- holds all of what it needs to put down roots, survive the winter and put forth an extraordinary flower in the spring.

Some, such as the paperwhite narcissus, do not even need soil.

And each one contains a reminder that the world can, and will, renew itself.

"There is something magic about the fact that you take this little bit of funny, wizened, dried-up stuff and then plant it in the ground," says author and gardener Mimi Leubbermann.

"And in the spring you have a beautiful daffodil."

There is profundity to this magic. As she writes in Beautiful Bulbs (Chronicle Books, 2004, $15.95), "In this era of political upheaval, urban tensions and a thousand daily irritations, the timed bloom of seasonal bulbs is a constant reassurance of the enduring pattern of nature."

The easy success of growing bulbs is evidenced by the fact that Americans purchase an estimated 800 million bulbs each year, with households spending an average of $42 on everything from the traditional 'King Alfred' daffodils to frilly, fluffy tulips that look more like peonies.

"I am amazed at the diversity of the bulbs that people are requesting," says Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, whose family has been importing, growing and selling bulbs for generations through its company, John Scheepers.

"Gardeners are really expanding their gardens with companion plant-ing, design schemes, under-planting and blooming times.

"American gardeners are more sophisticated and more devoted to unique home gardens. People are restoring old gardens with heirloom varieties. That's what is so exciting."

Leubbermann thinks summer- and fall-blooming bulbs are wonderful, too.

"But there is something about the spring bulb that makes the miracle special."

Tips for planting

Experiment with bulbs other than crocus, tulip, daffodil and hyacinth. Try some of the so-called minor bulbs, such as anemone, muscari, scilla, and snowdrops. Try also fritillaria, narcissus or the much larger amaryllis and allium.

Make sure to plant your bulb at the proper depth -- in a hole about three times the height of the bulb.

Store bulbs in a cool, dry place with good ventilation before planting. Make sure to open the boxes in which bulbs arrive.

Some tulip bulbs may need to cool off in your refrigerator for a few days or weeks before planting. Consult the packaging.

Bulbs should be planted between September and November -- after weather is consistently cool but before the ground has frozen.

Resist any temptation to plant bulbs in rows or lines. Cluster them in what gardeners like to call "clumps" of five, seven or nine bulbs, planted three inches apart.

Choose a sunny spot (remember, deciduous trees will probably not leaf out before your early bloomers are spent) and well-drained, semi-sandy soil.

After fall planting, broadcast some 7-10-5 fertilizer over the bed, as if you are scattering bird seed, and scratch it into the soil with a hand rake. Never use compost, manure or any "hot" fertilizers. Though the bulbs contain all the food the flower will need, the fertilizer helps the roots grow.

After the ground freezes, mulch with straw, salt marsh hay or oak leaves to retain moisture and stabilize soil temperature.

Fertilize again in spring at the first sign of sprouts. This will help the foliage grow. Remove the mulch.

Fertilize for the third time after the flowers die, during the critical photosynthesis process that feeds the bulb.

Deadhead spent flowers, but do not cut the flowers for indoor arranging if you want them to return next year. Plant a separate cutting garden for that purpose.

Resist the temptation to cut back the fading foliage. The leaves are gathering sunlight to feed the bulb and should not be removed until they have turned completely brown. Instead, plant something in front of the foliage to hide it.

There are hybrid tulips that promise to bloom again for three to five years, but the flowers may be smaller and less spectacular. Expect to replace your tulip bulbs every year or two.

Likewise, daffodils and narcissuses will produce smaller and less impressive flowers if they become crowded. Plan to divide the clumps and spread the bulbs out every few years.

Even the best experts do not have hopeful advice for gardeners who have their tulip bulbs devoured by voles, moles, gophers or deer. Planting tulip bulbs in wire mesh or in metal cages is one suggestion. Circling them with a protective ring of bulbs that predators do not like, such as allium, fritillaria and narcissuses, is another. "But my feeling is that nature always wins," says Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms of John Scheepers.

Bulbs in containers

If you have limited space or are bothered by predators, but still want the splash of spring color, try planting tulips, or any bulbs, in containers.

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