Bulb catalogues are pure garden porn. Flowers photographed in the full bloom and glow of youthful evanescence omit the ugly truth of bald, petal-less stalks surrounded by aging saggy foliage. If you believe the propaganda of the catalogues, you will certainly suffer dismay with your garden’s less than orgasmic performance in the spring. The real thing is nothing like the magazines.
I am not against bulbs. I plant more every year. Bulbs are like potato chips-you always want more. And you should always have more. Nothing is worse than an early spring stroll around the neighborhood envying everyone else’s flowers as they open to the sun and warmth, and then coming home to your own barren cold wasteland of a yard. My days of bulb envy are gladly far behind me. Now, my yard lights up with early bulbs and primroses before the snow even melts. Ah, spring.
A brief detour about primroses: why aren’t they the most popular plant on earth? It’s December, and they are blooming right now. We haven’t had a hard freeze, and they are near the house enjoying the benefit of shelter and warmth. I am amazed at their hardiness and color. They explode in spring. I planted them under the Limelight hydrangea where the sump pump water flows. They bloom close to the ground and don’t have the high drama of most bulbs, but for a soggy area spelling death to bulbs in need of dry summers, primroses enliven the spring and winter garden. They are under the snow with purple and yellow blooms even now.
Let’s get back to bulbs. Hardy bulbs are essential for me. I am not a squirrel. I am not going to lift my bulbs and store them in fancy little crates like precious gems every year. I mean, I have a life. I need strong adult plants that can take care of themselves. This garden is a long-term relationship, not a fling. I want to see the garden grow and develop year after year. I don’t want to have a new girlish crop of annuals every year. I don’t want playmates of the month. I want hardy, mature bulbs who come back strong and resist critter damage.
The best hardy and critter-resistant bulbs are daffodils, alliums, and galanthus. All three are either poisonous or foul-smelling to critters, and have survived in the rabbit plague zone where I live. Tulips, crocuses (from which saffron is collected-yum!), chionodoxia, and lilies are all too tasty for the front yard, although I’m trying some new tiger lilies in a protected spot behind inedible perennials, so we’ll see how that works next year. I’ll let you know.
Daffodils seem so prosaic that I avoided them as a gardening novice. I tried to only plant white and pink daffodils because I didn’t like seeing dandelion yellow in the spring; it seemed so…common. I tried to be very fancy when I was a new gardener. I tried to plant only white flowers in the garden. The daffodils did not cooperate, despite catalogue pictures and packaging labels; at best, they are whitish and pinkish, with definite tones of yellow underneath. As my snobbery towards yellow has matured into appreciation for the tacky colors of spring, I’ve planted more daffodils and learned to look forward to the horrible joyous yellow of spring in Michigan: dandelions, daffodils, and forsythia screaming IT’S SPRING DAMMIT!
Daffodils grow in a huge range of heights, shades, and bloom times. Check out Brent and Becky’s Bulbs for page after page of realistic pictures of Daffs in all their many shapes and sizes. If you haven’t planted Double Daffodils, you must; these flowers look like origami roses, last forever compared to tulips, and come back stronger every year. Think about your heights when you plant daffodils, because the dying foliage needs to be concealed by perennials. If you cut it down, you won’t have flowers next year. Tuck your bulbs in wisely-a few weeks of flowers is not worth months of ratty foliage spoiling your summer garden!
And if you screw up the first few times like me, you can just dig them up and move them. Why not?
Crocuses bloom well in my backyard where the old fence kept rabbits out (mostly). We’ll see how well the new fence works; I’m not very hopeful. However, a little trick you can attempt is to plant critter-repellant bulbs interspersed with tasty crocuses to protect them. Galanthus is perfect with crocuses. I have a little river of crocuses and galanthus flowing through the zen garden where toad lilies bloom in the late summer and fall. Despite their ungainly names, galanthus and crocuses look delightful. Galanthus are simply pure white with some green spots on their tiny bell shaped flowers, and crocuses bloom like jeweled eggs popping up in a wild array of blue and yellow tones right around Easter every year. Both grow bigger flowers each year as the bulbs mature.
Alliums get a little tricky, because the awesome globe-flowered varieties have very tall stalks and big leaves. I have personally not done a very good job with my placement of alliums. I need to work on thinking about them as architecture, not as plants. Their giant globes are like garden ornaments, or odd sentinels from outer space. The skeleton of a big allium flower looks weird and interesting long after the petals have fallen, and the leaves fortunately grow close to the ground aiding concealment.
Writing this in winter, I keep feeling like I’m forgetting half the bulbs that are planted out there. What else? Oh, fritillaria are really cool, blooming with the early perennials and enjoying moisture. Leucojum are another meadowy sort of bulb like fritillaria that bloom very late, so I’m experimenting with them in the milkweed patch to fill the gaps in early summer. Then there’s some really awesome vigorous little blue flower that seems to be spreading everywhere that I planted a few years ago but have no idea what it’s called. Maybe Scilla? Or Pushkinia? Argh, who knows!
It’s good to plant so many bulbs you can’t remember their names. It’s good to be surprised, dismayed, or delighted. It’s good to know the world isn’t dead. It’s good to see a million green phalluses surrounding you in spring and say, “Game on, Pan. Bring it.”
Outside my window I see about a foot of snow.
Clearly, I am in denial that it’s the middle of winter.