While autumn provides excellent conditions for planting perennials, shrubs, and trees, this season also provides the only window in which dormant flowering bulbs can be planted. Ironically, all the appreciation we have for them in the spring seems to dissipate along with the heat of summer. By autumn their memory has been buried under all the events of an always challenging growing season (this year has been the drought!); and it is often not until we have reached our wits’ end with the full brutality of winter that the hunger for spring compels us to rue not having planted new bulbs to herald the reawakening of the earth.
Bulbs are among the most versatile, rewarding, and undemanding plants around. Most species are quite easily grown in a wide range of garden soils, but there exist some that thrive in exceedingly dry or wet environments as well. In short, there is hardly any growing condition that is unwelcoming to some type of bulb.
Often, bulbs are the missing quotient that prevents a lovely garden from becoming a spectacular garden. They provide interest and excitement to perennial gardens and shrub borders long before those types of plants have much to show us. Moreover, they can be tucked in between clumps of perennials so that the potential of the space is maximized; when those larger perennials fill in, they will conceal the bulbs’ foliage. Larger drifts of spring bulbs can transition into sites for annual plantings as well. In these ways, bulbs are an essential part of any elegant successional planting scheme.
Some bulbs, such as squills (Scilla and Hyacinthoides spp) will colonize barren woodland floors where even the sturdiest groundcovers fear to tread, creating in time amazing drifts of color that stir the winter-hardened soul.
Likewise, many minor bulbs such as crocus can be naturalized in lawns to create a similar effect; anyone who has traversed the crest of Baldwin Hill in April can attest to the beauty of this application. In essence, bulbs are garden plants that do not even require a garden!
There are even bulbs that are unattractive to deer and rodents. Daffodils and snowdrops are avoided because they are toxic to browsers, whereas the bulbs of alliums and fritillaries are so rank in odor that they are only rarely tasted by animal pests.
Hardy bulbs run the gamut from subtle (e.g., grape hyacinth, Muscari spp.) to the spectacular (e.g., desert candles, Eremurus spp.), with shades of variation in between to appeal to every taste. There is little so sensually iconic of summer’s luscious, almost overwhelming bounty as the fragrant presence of Oriental lilies, perfuming the day and night with a scent that is rightfully described as intoxicating.
Most of the larger bulbs, such as lilies and daffodils, can be planted well into November, almost up until the time that frost settles into the soil.
(Some of the more adventurous among us have even been known to cut out patches of frozen topsoil in order to install late additions as our last bold act of the gardening season.) Smaller bulbs such as crocus, species tulips, and squills ought to be planted by late October.
More so than in any other type of planting, when it comes to bulbs, time is of the essence!
By Terrence Trapp, Director of Horticulture
September 27, 2012