Bulbs and Autumn Planting

With intimations of future magic, bulbs are arriving in stores and I, for one, am ready for a whole new season. Bulbs augur the beginning of autumn. Autumn means making choices, dividing up plants and, of course, adding new shrubs and trees. My favourite season.

In some parts of the country where hard frosts will be starting this month, it?s not only time to buy bulbs, it?s time to get them into the ground and the sooner the better. For those in warmer climes, there are a couple of months ahead to plan and plant.

I?m crazy about bulbs and try to fashion them into a grand tapestry design throughout the garden. I like to have as long a season as possible starting with early snow drops through to late-blooming tulips. For some years now, along with tons of the minor bulbs such as scilla, muscari, alliums and chionodoxa, my favourites have been species tulips and narcissus.

Buy only species bulbs deliberately cultivated for the garden not something snatched from the wild. Check with your supplier about this. Many species tulips naturalize and spread satisfactorily even in unhappy circumstances. Talk about no-nonsense plants. These small bulbs are simply wonderful to handle, everything nutritional is inside and you have nothing to do but pop them into the ground and enjoy. They will tuck in very nicely around shrubs (not too close, however, leave some space between trunks and bulbs); underneath plants such as Japanese maples and in grassy areas where you?re prepared to let bulb foliage yellow-off and disappear before mowing.

Some of the most exciting species tulips are also easy to find: T. batalinii ?Bright Gem? with buttery yellow blooms and strong steel grey foliage tops my list of must-haves. And if you are keen on putting as much blue into the garden as I am, having a hit of colour from T. pulchella with its bright violet-pink and yellow makes a luxurious contrast. Then there?s the sweetness of T. tarda and T. tukestanica both with pale yellow blooms that I keep reading are great for rock gardens but I?ll stick them in anywhere.

Species Narcissus are also high up on my “Most Desirable” list. The cups are small and seem to slip in almost anywhere or mix up well with larger tulips and narcissus. N. ?Quail? has the added advantage of being slightly scented and last year I had rivers of it along with N. hawera behind the brilliant blues of Muscari plumosa (cobalt blue) which was a real show stopper.

Then there are the oddballs. I?d count our native camassia in this category. It has blue violet showers of bloom at the end of 45cm stems. Planted among the silvery grays of artemisia and stachys, it looks stunning. This is another plant that will naturalize slowly, usually comes up a bit later than other bulbs and like moist rich soil.

?Queen of Night? is a handsome tall (60 cm) tulip. The deep velvety purple blooms look magnificent with the intense white of Narcissus ?Thalia?. Just one problem here, the foliage lasts well into July. No kidding. I didn?t have enough tall strong woody plants to disguise the mess in one area and it looked awful. I planted way too many of them together without layering them and they all appeared at the same time and fell over at the same time. I don?t know why so much of gardening is re-learning things on an annual basis.

So take my advice. Mass bulbs in small groups of a dozen or more but make sure they are at different depths when you plant them. This means they will come up at slightly different times and mature on the same basis.

Bulbs experts recommend that all bulbs be planted three times as deep as they are wide. In areas with freeze-thaw cycles shallow planting will pitch them right out of the ground. I?ve been planting even deeper than that and am really satisfied with the results. As well, this makes the bloody squirrels work harder if they want to raid the garden.

Ah, the perennial squirrel problem. I?ve had lots of tips such as rolling bulbs in cayenne to dissuade the munching of the rodent this is expensive and as soon as you water them the pepper leaches into the soil. Make your planting areas look as undisturbed as possible so you don?t tip the little beggars off. Roll a pile of leaves on top if you have them. And, at the worst, set out mouse traps with a nail set so it won?t catch those busy little paws. The noise terrifies them.

You really don?t have to do anything with new bulbs except maybe add some compost to the surface of the soil. You can do this in autumn or wait until the new growth appears. Apart from this small effort you have only to sit back and wait for spring glory. Bulbs are among the most satisfying plants you can have in the garden and if you plan well you can have something popping up for months on end.

Originally published: Sept 4, 1999. Globe and Mail.