Our gardens in many lights

mercredi 24 septembre 2014

Are spring bulbs intimidating ?

Cet article en français.

The very first spring flowering : a snowdrop
bulb. It appears at the end of March or start
of April,  depending on how winter went.
This plant doesn't multiply in my garden
making it especially precious.
Isn't establishing a perennial garden continuously in bloom, from the last snows of spring to the first autumn freeze, one of the gardener's many dreams?

To reach that goal, you automatically have to consider spring bulbs, since they give the earliest flowers of all, plus they are generally quite colorful. However, if you don't think about tulips (most of them blooming in May), we don't often see other spring bulbs species in the garden. 
I always wondered why. Maybe many gardeners who aren't acquainted with these beauties tend to feel intimidated by them. Maybe I'm wrong.

On the other hand, maybe it's simply because in fall, this task just doesn't make it to the top of the list considering everything that needs doing in the garden at that time. Maybe the gardener just doesn't feel like gardening anymore especially knowing the hard work's reward will only show 6 months later. It may also feel like a substantial investment - a certain quantity of bulbs is needed to make an impact after all, making for a steep bill when most likely, our gardening money allocation as already been swallowed up.
The Chansonnette Triumph tulip is very tall and keep its huge flower in perfect condition for weeks! Furthermore, it blooms very late (notice how my linden tree as already completely unfurled its leaves). This tulip is part of what I call the "statement plants" here. I positionned the bulbs so a ring would be fashioned around the linden tree.
Here's a close-up of my crocuses "Ruby Giant"
behind the house. This planting bed is shaded
in summer by many mature trees, but in April,
those trees are still leafless. The crocuses can
enjoy every beam of sunshine all for themelves.
For my own, I can speak of my reticences to plant bulbs, due to my frame of mind at the time. 

I discovered these plants when we bought our first house. The first spring there, nice, long leaves sporting a crisp, refreshing shade of green appeared against the concrete foundation of the house. Followed a cloud of beautiful, vivid yellow crocus flowers: a vision of heaven for my color-starved eyes. Of course, at that time, I was ignorant of their name, let alone the fact that they were bulbs! I couldn't even guess how important these plants were for the spring garden. That was my first obstacle: my own ignorance.

The color palette of spring bulbs can satisfy many tastes since it can encompass vivid and bright colors as well as the most delicate pastels. Here, soft pink Glory-Of-The-Snow (Chionodoxa) grow through a carpet of various ground covers.
One day I came back with a gardening magazine which I bought because of the cover picture, a perfect mound of mixed yellow and purple crocuses.
It was still not enough to compel me to purchase new plant varieties. I wouldn't have dreamed of multiplying the bulbs I already had, scared that I could just kill them between my inexpert hands. Furthermore, how was I supposed to figure out where they were planted, after they had flowered, faded and were nowhere to be seen anymore? Second obstacle: those devilish plants disappear once their foliage browns and dry up.

Once we bought our second house, I was saddened to find out there was not a single crocus in that garden. What a blow! I found my yard seriously laking something. I jumped right back in the books, reading anything and everything that talked about the subject, dreaming about those once-upon-a-time early splashes of spring color amidst the brown vegetation of the beds. During that first winter in our new house, I had subscribed for a perennial plants catalog. Without asking for it, I received their fall edition that presented an impressive amount of bulbs.

This confronted me to yet another obstacle: planting bulbs in fall seemed like an impossible task. How was I supposed to place bulbs in the ground of my already filled-to-the-brim-with-vegetation beds?

Yet, that vivid dream of a colorful spring beconed and with a trowel in my trembling hand, the first bulb was planted, regardless of the fears that assailed me: fear that bulbs and neighboring plants would imped on each other, fear of the chosen location, fear of how many bulbs I could squeeze in a single hole, fear of my inexpertise regarding the dept of the hole, the distance between each bulb, etc. But as each little bag of bulbs emptied itself, the task was becoming easier and easier, my hands were trembling less, my fears were muted.
In Hélène's garden, a ring of daffodils around a tree brings color and gaity. Many varieties multiply by themselves, like these Original Poet's, an heirloom variety.

The following spring, my gardening beds were filled with colorful flowers, way before anything else greened. Here's some tips and tricks I find important that I discovered throughout the years I catered for spring bulbs:

 -When the cat's away, the mice will play. In other words, spring bulbs are plants that benefit tremendously from the vast emptiness that occur in nature during springtime, but this emptiness only lasts a short while. In that season of renewal, everything takes some time to awake and flourish. The spring bulbs, on the contrary, are quick little fellows that grow up, set flower and recharge very rapidly while they have the sunshine, rain and space all for themselves. They even benefit from the undivided attention of pollinators. Then, they disappear, generally before other plants overshadow them and steal their sun and rain. The rest of the year, these bulbs that charm us so much in spring are forgotten, back in dormance.

The more the varieties of bulbs are early, the more the plants are small and close to the ground since they don't have time to grow a lot and accumulate energy before their active life cycle is over. As gardeners, we can benefit from this musical chairs game in nature by placing those early bulbs right where they will be replaced by other plants later on.
This is the beginning of April.
Here, I planted my crocuses 

in color patches in a bed near
the sidewalk. They're so early
that they flower before the
grass has even had the time
to turn green !

Same place, mid-May.The 
crocus flowers are gone. We can
see their slender leaves lying
down horizontally. In blue, we
see muscaris. They have a
marvelous perfume. We can
also spot the wide leaf of a
late variety of tulip that will
bloom only in June. In the
background, narcissus are blooming
and when they are done, they'll be
replaced by alliums in July.

To maximize flowerings in a restrained environment, we can plant different bulbs in the same hole. The idea is to regroup species that have different height and even better, different growing time frames, like shown in the 2 pictures above. For example, crocuses bloom at the end of March - beginning of April. On the other end narcissus flower at the end of April - beginning of May, for most of them. Round this group up with late-blooming tulips that come around the end of May - beginning of June and you have a solid block of ongoing flowers right there. Examples of such tulips that would work here are Darwin tulips and parrot tulips. If you're searching for low-growing, late-blooming, muscaris are good, flowering at the end of May - beginning of June.

- It's easier to install bulbs while creating a new garden bed.  You just need to plant that bed in fall instead of spring. It's better to plant the bulbs at the same time as the neighboring plants since nothing is in our way to dig each plant's hole.
Delicate, sky blue Pushkinias, pushing through
a mat of lesser periwinkle (Vinca Minor)

- Spring bulbs can only be disturbed while in their dormancy state. Meaning when their leaves have brown and are dead. So if you have to lift bulbs of the ground, wait for them to flower, then wait for their leaves to turn brown naturally. Those green leaves after the blooming are recharging the bulb with energy for next year's blooming; if you cut them short (in order to moving the bulb or for the esthetism of the thing), you are jeopardizing the plant's capability for future blossoms. If you forethought the placement of your bulbs according to the placement of your other plants, these other plants may be able to grow over your bulbs while these are fading, hiding the bulbs' unsightly browning leaves with their new green leaves. 

Perennials that grow slowly and form a neatly delimited mound are ideal partners for bulbs, since they leave a space around them that's easy to dig for the placement of the bulbs without fear of hacking of vital root systems. Furthermore, if their leaves wait until the end of spring to unfurl, they will hide the unsightly yellowing leaves of the bulbs. For instance, hostas make excellent neighbours to bulbs.

Those bulbs that multiply year after year make poor neighbours to annuals. An annual, by definition, needs to be pulled out and planted back each season. It's easy this way to damage surrounding bulbs that we frankly don't see, either with a shovel or excessive disturbance of the soil, operations that are unavoidable in order to plant annuals. Thus, it's better to restrain from placing these two kinds of plants close together.
Pink and purple yacinth flowers with early, soft yellow tulips at Hélène's. Yacinth is one of those more perfumed flowers. One or two branches are enough to perfume an entire room.

Botanical tulips "Tulipa Tarda" multiply
abondantly in my garden. I bought only 10 bulbs
15 years ago, just enough for one clump.
Now, I have 6 or 8 clumps that conhtinue to 
expand year after year. The only thing I had to do
was to sow the seeds that formed inside the dried
seed capsules that followed after the pollinated
flowers faded.
- To prevent work and cost, it's better to choose bulbs that will multiply. I love the perfume of yacinth flowers and the beauty of parrot tulips, but I never buy any because here, they don't multiply; in fact, they dwindle rapidly to nothing. Yacinths are the worst for me, because even at the wee second year, their flowering is disappointing. It depends where you are of course: at Hélène's, the yacinths multiply. 

As for the summer bulbs like dahlias and gladiolus, they can't survive the winter here. Those will need to be lifted up from the ground, stored and planted back the following spring, a task that can become tedious year after year, but one that could make more sense in an annual garden bed.
Left, 2012. Right, 2013. A visual on multiplication.

On the other hand, there is a multitude of bulbs available that keep multiplying year after year, giving more and more flowers out of bigger and bigger mounds. At my house, crocuses, Scillas, Glories of the Snow and muscaris multiply this way. Daffodils will multiply slowly as well (however, I've noticed them to make a lot of tiny bulbs that take some years before flowering). Garden tulips, from the latin name Tulipa Gesneriana, and who's origin is obscure, have hybrids of all color and form, but most of these hybrids will only produce leaves from their second year onward. Botanical tulips, meaning all tulips except garden tulips, are named thus because - unlike garden tulips - can be retraced to their wild ancestors. They multiply readily if they're happy enough where planted. Here, it's the case of Tulipas Greigii, for example. I also have many mounds of Tulipa Tarda, since I let the plants produce seeds that I take when they're very dry and plant elsewhere. Darwin's tulips come back year after year with such reliability that some catalogues sell them as "perrenials".

It's unfortunate for the hybrids of garden tulips that dwindle even on the second year and onward.
A tiny tulip that was supposed to be blue (I was sold the wrong bulbs) is still a fabulous little specimen: it's earlier than any other in my current possession, a single bulb can produce many flowers and they flower at the same time as this purple Glory of the snow that's growing next to it.

In Louise's garden, botanical tulips "Tulipa Bakeri" growing through that big mound of creeping phlox.

These big pompoms stand 3 feet from the ground on a spindly stalk bring a whimsical touch to the June garden. After a long blooming, these stalks become wondrous magic wands for kids to play with!
Being knowledgeable enough with spring bulbs, I tried my luck with summer bulbs, like decorative onions. Even thought two of them have been eaten by rabbits, the rest made an amazing display. They looked like giant bubbles floating above my garden! Furthermore, these alliums come in many forms, colors and height.

And now, with all these informations and possibilities, will you jump in the adventure of bulbs too?
From a bed of Wormwood (Artemisia Schmidtiana 'Silver Mound'), strawberry and bronze bugle (Ajuga Reptans), grow Alliums. Even the giant hosta is dwarfed by the height of the alliums!

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