Despite The Heat, It's Time To Think About Crocuses

August 13, 2009|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

There is something courageous about the tiny crocus.

Its flowers, blooming determinedly through the snow, have the power to give the gardener the boost he needs to get through the last, lingering days of winter.

"I love that they are so early," said Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens heirloom bulbs of Ann Arbor, Mich. "And they are among the iconic flowers: tulips, lilies and lilacs.

"Winter aconite is not the stuff of legends or poetry," he said. "Crocuses are. Every elementary school kid knows what a crocus is."

"I think they must have hot little bodies," said Becky Heath of Brent and Becky's Bulbs of Gloucester, Va. "They seem to heat up the ground around them and make the snow melt.

"They are the little princesses of the early spring," she said.

Why are we talking about crocuses now when we will not see them until February or March?

Because this is bulb-ordering season in the garden and, while some spring bulbs can wait to be planted until Thanksgiving and are better for it, crocuses can be planted in early fall so their root systems have time to develop before the frost.

"Anything as small as crocus corms need to be planted shallow," said Kunst. "Maybe 3 or 4 inches. That means the cold will reach them sooner and stop their root growth. You need to give them as long as possible to get started."

But don't you need hundreds, even thousands of crocuses to make a statement in the garden? Some formulas call for anywhere from 100 to 200 bulbs per square yard.

"I am happy to sell you a thousand of them," said Kunst. "But the nice thing about crocuses is that you can squeeze them in anywhere. At a certain point, everybody's garden gets full. But you can always tuck in a few crocuses at the base of shrubs or peonies.

"Where there is no room for a full-sized plant, it is perfect for crocuses."

Heath likes to plant crocuses as the top layer in her "lasagna garden."

"Tulips planted 10 inches deep, daffodils at 6 inches and crocuses at 3 or 4 inches," is her recipe. "Don't worry if they are on top of each other, they find their way around their neighbors."

Utilizing crocuses means outsmarting the critters, too. Planting these tiny bulbs can feel like scattering seed corn among hungry chickens.

One recommendation is to plant them in wire cages of half-inch mesh. Or use something called hardware cloth, which is a mesh as well.

Heath says she just sprays them with any of the non-poisonous substances available that make bulbs smell and taste terrible. Let them dry and then plant.

She also dresses the top of the ground with compost, which hides the fact from squirrels that their territory has been disturbed by somebody planting something good.

"And all those nutrients wash down during the winter, making the bulbs fat and happy."

Another possibility is to plant the popular "tommies," formally known as crocus tommasinianus. "Whatever the rodents like, there seems to be less of it in these," said Kunst.

"And they also multiply really quickly. They spread by seed above ground as well as multiplying corms underground."

Crocuses do one more thing - they inspire the gardener to leave the fireside and go outdoors, long before spring is at his door.

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