Bulbs: The promise of spring
Late fall is the perfect time to ready our gardens for the coming years, thus perpetuating the never-ending cycle of the seasons.
As soon as the above-ground portion of most perennials have died back to the ground, their roots will become dormant. Thus late fall is actually the least stressful time to divide and rearrange our garden plants.
Moreover, since the soil is still soft and dig-able, getting out those pesky roots of perennial weeds like dandelions and grasses is a relatively easy task.
Packets of magic
And, in anticipation of many springs-yet-to-come, late fall is also an excellent time to nestle some bulbs in among your perennials. Bulbs are like little packets of magic — all winter long they remain buried in the cold soil and then, triggered by the warming ground in early spring and right on cue, each is transformed into a beautiful flower.
To give them enough time to establish new roots, plant your bulbs between four and six weeks before you anticipate the ground will freeze solid in your area.
At the mention of garden bulbs, images of lipstick-red tulips and sunny yellow daffodils always come to mind. I adore daffodils and over the years I have planted thousands, in colors ranging from pure white, to creamy-white with pink cups, and to deep yellow with orange cups. Also, in addition to planting them in my flower beds, I have also established colonies of daffodils in the tall rough grass in our meadow and at the edge of our road.
Since daffodils are both very resilient and also disliked by animals, these early plantings have now multiplied beyond my wildest dreams. Now each May I look out at a carpet of yellow and white running down the center of each of my beds.
Since daffodils also come in many sizes, I have combined taller varieties towards the back of the bed with shorter varieties nearer the front. I have also planted some that bloom quite early (the end of April in my Goshen garden) as well as others that wait until at the end of May, thus extending the wonderful daffodil season across six or more weeks.
COMBINING SOME TALL and short daffodils together makes a lovely picture. Photo by Dick Conrad
So, at this point I have no need to plant more daffodils. Indeed each spring, after the flowers have faded but before the leaves turn yellow, I usually relocate dozens of bulbs out of my beds to along the edge of the road where I hope they will brighten the scene in perpetuity.
By contrast, for me tulips have always proven so disappointing that I have given up planting them. The first year they looked like those pictures in the bulb company catalogs, but after a few years they would virtually disappear, with just a few solitary survivors popping up each spring to remind me of just why I do not plant tulips any more.
But there are also plenty of lesser known bulbs you can plant now to enhance your spring garden. One of my favorites is the flowering onion (Allium species) with huge spherical purple or white flower heads atop sturdy stems. Another is the Indian Hyacinth (Camissia quamash) which has tall spires of lavender-blue. These have happily naturalized in the moist soil at the edge of our pond.
I also have a special affection for the many diminutive spring-flowering bulbs, such as snowdrops, crocus and squills.
Snowdrops are tough little plants with clear white flowers often edged with green. They start to bloom in the very first weeks of spring — usually just as the snow is receding — and then continue to flower for at least three more weeks.
JUDITH’S NEW BED is waiting for the new bulbs. Photo by Dick Conrad
And, as with daffodils, over the years snowdrops will also multiply and spread themselves around in the beds. So, after they have finished flowering, I like to relocate a few to new places around the garden.
Siberian Squills or Scilla are also delightful small bulbs that are easily grown in our gardens. They have intense clear blue flowers which open right after the snowdrops and they too will spread themselves around.
I know of several nearby gardens in Brandon and Middlebury where the squills have actually migrated way beyond the confines of the beds and into the lawn, creating a beautiful vision in blue and green. Each spring I make a habit of walking past these gardens to enjoy this spectacular sight.
A new bed
This year I have a brand new bed in my front garden. It is like a blank canvas or “tabula rasa,” and it is stimulating my creative juices.
It is situated atop a beautiful new wall recently built for me by my dear friend and stonemason, Tammy Walsh of Goshen Mountain Landscaping. This splendid wall replaces a rough bank that was too steep to plant or mow. Now, in its place I have a broad flat space with a new bed that is readily visible both from the house and the road.
Earlier in the season I positioned the main structural plantings in my new bed. At one end I planted a Sienna Glen Maple (a hybrid between a Silver Maple and a Red Maple that will eventually mature to be somewhat smaller than our more familiar sugar maples) together with a backbone of low-growing shrubs. And, to fill in between the woody plants, I recently added a mix of perennials, grouping each kind as a cluster of three or five plants.
INDIAN HYACINTH, PLANTED many years ago, thrives in this moist spot near our pond. Photo by Dick Conrad
Then finally, to add a special interest in the early part of the season, I purposefully left some open ground between each of the perennial clusters for some diminutive spring bulbs.
Now, with this project in mind, I have just returned from a delightful visit to Agway in Middlebury where, in addition to many varieties of daffodils and tulips, they had an assortment of smaller bulbs to tempt me.
Here I chose a variety of different bulbs, including:
A large package of the well-known Grape Hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum)
Fifteen Checkered Fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris)
A new-to-me species of squill called the Amethyst Meadow Squill (Scilla amethystina);
A dozen English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) to remind me of the amazing bluebells woods I loved to visit as a child;
Some pink Cyclamen (Cyclamen coum) that the package indicates will flower in the summer and also promises will be hardy to Zone 4.
And finally, to add a bit drama to the whole composition, I included a package of 20 Allium “Violet Beauty” (pictured, right) which, starting in late May, will sport large purple spheres on twenty inch stems.
Plant now for spring pleasures
So, if you too have a few spaces among your perennials, this fall consider planting some bulbs. As you can see, in addition to the familiar daffodils and tulips, there are plenty of other bulbs to brighten the new year in our gardens.
Then sit back and dream about spring, both next year and for many years to come!
Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.com.