On Beyond Tulips
Autumn brings a rush of enticing bulb catalogs, their glossy pages full of glowing tulips and ruffled daffodils. Here in Deer Central, I don’t bother much with big border tulips any more, since they are apparently addictive for deer. Let deer once discover tulips in your garden and they’ll return year after year, seeking those tender tidbits. Instead, I grow all sorts of daffodils, from tiny species to huge border beauties. Actually, I’ve stopped buying the biggest kinds of daffs, those frilly doubles that bend over and plunge their faces in the mud at the first rain. That still leaves me with hundreds to choose from, though finding space is a bit of a problem. That’s because, unlike fancy tulips, most daffodils are quite persistent, reappearing faithfully for many years. When we moved to Bainbridge in 1985, clumps of Poet’s Narcissus daffodils reportedly planted in 1908 were still flowering each spring. Similarly, yellow trumpet King Alfred daffodils planted over a century ago by Mary Sam, a Native American midwife, still bloom every year, some now at the Historic Museum and some at the library.
Daffodils are tougher than tulips, being pest, disease, and drought resistant when given suitable conditions. That’s not to say no tulips are persistent, many singles, notably the old fashioned Darwins, can last for decades, and some species tulips live indefinitely. Both daffodils and tulips, like most bulbs, thrive in clay based soils as long as they get to dry out in summer. That means planting them away from any irrigated areas, since dry summer “baking” is vital to their wellbeing. So is excellent drainage; where soils remain moist in summer, bulbs may rot unless planted in berms or mounded beds on pads of sandy loam. For longer lives, all bulbs must be allowed to ripen their foliage fully, as the browning leaves redirect stored nutrients back into the bulbs. Since the fading foliage isn’t attractive, it’s a good idea to intersperse bulbs with drought resistant perennials that don’t need much or any summer watering. Leatherleaf (Bergenia) and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) are good companions, as are ferns and hostas.
Planting Bulbs Without Breaking Your Back
Most years, planting bulbs is eased by returning rains that soften summer baked soil. Even in dry years, autumn is bulb planting time, but before you start excavating, here’s some good news: Bulbs planted less deeply last longer. That flies in the face of advice found almost everywhere, from bulb packaging to articles found online to articles and books by respected horticulture writers. Why? Several bulb trials demonstrate that shallower planting can indeed promote better returns of spring blooming bulbs.One recent Cornell study focused on getting tulips, notably fickle bulbs, to stick around longer in garden settings. Here’s what the final report says, “Deep planting of tulips, as recommended by most packages and websites, is detrimental to longer term perennialization potential. If consumers want the best chance to perennialize tulips, or simply want to plant them with less effort, shallower planting should generally be advised.”
Yay! The study determined that, although it’s widely recommended that tulips be planted at least 8 inches deep, there are better, more effective, and best of all easier ways to plant with better results. This is good, because very few people actually enjoy excavating heavy clay soils a full 8 inches deep. If you’re looking at planting bulbs by the dozen or the hundred, it’s seriously hard work! It turns out that the reasoning behind the deep planting recommendations are flawed; deeper soils were thought to maintain even soil temperatures better, yet bulbs in native, often harsh, environments experience a wide range of temperature fluctuations that do not impair their lifespan.
Try Modified Mulching
Back in the 1990s, large scale planting trials in North Carolina involved a “modified mulching system” for a variety of spring blooming bulbs. Beds were loosened 4-8 inches deep, then bulbs were placed on the loosened soil and covered with 5-8 inches of lime-amended mulch to balance acidic soils. Several multi-year trials were run in coordination with Dutch bulb exporters, aiming to create bulb planting techniques that would encourage bulbs to return for at least 3-5 years. The end result was that deeper soil loosening didn’t make a positive difference and deeper mulches didn’t either. The bottom line was that shallowly planted bulbs (2-4 inches) topped with 2-3 inches of mulch are most likely to return to bloom well for multiple years.
What’s a modified mulch? Any loose, airy material, such as fine wood chips mixed with compost will do, but one of the best is available for free. As autumn leaves tumble, take advantage of nature’s bounty and heap leaves over your newly planted bulbs. If you live near Bigleaf maples, run the lawn mower over the leaves or put them through a shredder first, as the more cut surface available, the faster soil bacteria can break them down into natural compost. In any case, the leaves will rot down over the winter, improving the soil and feeding your bulbs as they put out roots and shoots. If the leaves are dry, cover them with bird netting secured with tent stakes or rocks to keep them from blowing away.
Minor Bulbs For Major Delight
My grandkids are enchanted with the many minor bulbs we’ve planted, from winter blooming crocus to tiny daffodils just a few inches tall and baby-sized tulips which the deer don’t seem to notice. These diminutive bloomers are perfect for the rock garden or wide, shallow containers placed where you can admire the delicate little blossoms up close. It’s fun to fill a series of pots with bulbs that will provide a succession of flowers from late winter into early summer. Start with snow crocus, which really do pop up through snow if need be. This group of small but early blooming species often beat their big Dutch hybrid cousins into flower by as much as six or eight weeks. Most are multi-flowering as well, boasting six or eight blossoms from each bulb. In my garden, both “golden bunch”, Crocus ancyrensis, and golden Crocus chrysanthus bloom in January and February, appearing in increasingly fat clusters nestled between bumps of moss and running thymes.
C. chrysanthus has many colorful forms, like the chalky, sweet-scented ‘Blue Bird’ and ‘Violet Queen’, Easter egg purple with a slate grey eye and red-gold stamens. ‘Advance’ is a lively combination of bronze and thundercloud purples when closed on grey days, but when the thin winter sun coaxes it open, pure lemon yellow spills from its deep cups. The fragrant, butter yellow petals of ‘Cream Beauty’ are faintly feathered with bronze on their backs, while ‘Gypsy Girl’ is sunny yellow with bolder, brassy stripes that partner well with bronze Carex comans and rosy sedums. Dapper little ‘Lady Killer’, clean white heavily barred and brushed with midnight purple, combines strikingly with black labrador violets and tufts of black mondo grass or white winter heathers and hellebores.
A Squirrel Defeating Crocus
Perhaps the most prolific multiplier is Crocus tommasinianus, which will quickly colonize border or lawn if allowed to ripen seed as well as foliage. Tommies, as they are affectionately known, run from lavenders to purple-blues in nature, making them good company for blue and purple flowered lungworts (Pulmonaria species) and the mauve and misty purple Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis). Tommies also come in named varieties, among them the grape jelly colored ‘Whitewell Purple’ and ‘Ruby Giant’, a vinaceous red. Tucked between pink primroses and rosy hardy cyclamen, any or all will give you and your garden a lovely late winter lift. Best of all, squirrels don’t eat Tommies, so they spread unmolested!