Early Bloomers For Late Winter Gardens

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Bulbs That Take Snow In Stride

I’ve had several anxious questions about how bulbs might be faring in the recent to and fro of frost and snow. Happily, early bulbs are sturdy little critters that bounce back from snowy burdens at the first hint of thaw. Though small, they have the strength of spring itself; years ago, I saw ancient daffodils effortlessly pierce through asphalt when an elderly Seattle cottage was razed to make way for an auto dealership. Surrounded by fancy imported cars, the bright trumpets blew undeterred by the thick blanket of tar that covered their long time home.

This is good news, as we’re still deep in frost season. Clear days can mean freezing nights, since the insulting cloud blanket is not around to keep the day’s meager heat in place. Most perennials are still dormant, or just breaking ground, still protected by soil and mulch. Spring bulbs, in contrast, are popping up in force. Earliest of all are the smallest ones classified as minor bulbs. Between the deer and the moles and excess summer irrigation, bigger, bolder border beauties like fancy tulips and tall stemmed daffodils can act like spendy annuals. Smaller daffodils and species tulips, snowdrops and crocus, hardy cyclamen and fritillaries are longer lived and surprisingly tough, despite their apparent shy delicacy.

Nevertheless, They Persisted

Where gardens have been made on the old bones of earlier plantings, unsuspected gifts are likely, and minor bulbs are often among them. I once visited an abandoned nursery where ivy had carpeted at least an acre of open woodland. When new owners cut the ivy in strips and rolled it up like a shaggy carpet, sheets of snowdrops were revealed. Planted about a century ago, these persistent bulbs had steadily proliferated despite smothering layers of bigleaf maple leaves atop the ivy.

Snowdrops don’t always grow well when we buy them from catalogs, because they hate to dry out. The best way to get some going is to buy them “in the green”, potted up and already showing leaves if not blooms. These will settle in far more quickly than dried ones, as will any dug from a flourishing snowdrop patch. This is best done soonish, when the flowers have faded but the foliage is still sturdy. Even a modest established clump may yield 40-50 bulbs: To reset them, shake each bulb free of soil and plant them in clusters of five or six. Next year, spring’s promise will bloom in your own backyard, spreading ever onward in years to come.

Blooming In Snow

Small but vivid, the snow crocuses can being to bloom as early as late January, alongside those snowdrops. Both multiply readily as long as you give them a well drained site that’s sunny in late winter. It’s fine if their spot is shaded later on, but when in active growth, crocus do best with lots of light. Among the most vigorous are the Tommies, selections of Crocus tommasinianus that range from lavender and violet to rose and white. If squirrels and chipmunks famously enjoy stealing crocus bulbs, they don’t seem to have a taste for these early bloomers, which proliferate rapidly in beds and borders as well as lawns and naturalized meadows of natives plus pretties.

At the local library, beds I’ve tended for over twenty years are thick with Tommies, thanks to our homemade compost. When we clean up the borders, everything gets tossed into our big compost windrows, including seedling bulbs. Even mature crocus bulbs take up very little room, and they bloom for a long time, even through snow. So do the appropriately named Snow Crocus species, such as C. chrysanthus, which also boasts a bunch of named selections. Purple striped, glowing golden hearted Advance is one of my favorites. I also like Dorothy, a golden beauty, as well as Romance and Cream beauty, both of which bloom in gentle pastel tints of yellow. Elegant Ladykiller is dapper in almost-black and white, while Snow Bunting is clean white. Bluebird, Blue Pearl, and Blue Peter are shades of lavender blue. All are easy to please and long lived.

When Foliage Flops

Spring bulbs are so boldly beautiful that it’s tempting to pack the borders with them. A dazzle of daffodils, a triumph of tulips, a hurrah of hyacinths, what’s not to love? Frankly, their ripening foliage looks pretty tatty, especially when it tumbles in damp heaps over neighboring perennials. Indeed, most bulbs aren’t good mixers, wanting dry soil for dormancy just when thirsty perennials are rarin’ to go. Funky foliage can tempt us to chop it all off, but that weakens the bulbs so they re-bloom sparsely if at all.

To keep bulbs prolific, feed them while their foliage is still green. Bloom time is too chilly for chemical fertilizers, but compost mulch and a slow organic feed of soy or cottonseed meal and kelp meal will encourage future blooms. So will compost mulch or aged dairy manure. When bulb foliage flops, gently fold it down. Once it yellows, it’s no longer replenishing the mother bulb. Tucked under the mulch, it can mature without becoming an eyesore. Where bulbs are naturalized in lawns, don’t mow until the foliage has browned off and dried up. In meadows, hold off your first mowing until late June or July to be sure all the bulbs (including native camas) are fully topped up and sleeping it off until another snowy winter arrives.




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2 Responses to Early Bloomers For Late Winter Gardens

  1. Kathleen Solas says:

    I’ve read your articles for many years, and appreciate your knowledge. That being said, I live in Manette, and on my property there resides an over 100yr old apple tree. I love this tree, and wish to hang onto it, until it cannot sustain life. I believe, it is time for an arborist to tend to this venerable tree. Can you provide a name of a trusted arborist?

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Kathleen,
      I’m glad you want to save your lovely old tree! I suggest contacting Waag Tree Service (360) 286-8325, or Westerlund Tree Service (360) 779-2711. Good luck!

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