Sue on 31 Oct 2008
While I write this, August marches on, full heat, ripening eggplant and juicy tomatoes. Crocus, tulips and the like seem so far off as I look through my kitchen window at the taller zinnias I grow to use as cut flowers. These are hedged in by a wall of Italian sunflowers; the ground hidden by unruly zucchini vines. Undoubtedly, one or two monstrous sized fruits lie somewhere within, waiting for discovery having been missed during earlier harvest sessions.
Iris reticulataI try to imagine this colorful mass of vegetation passing away. Following our first hard frost it will become a sorry, wilted sight indeed. I try to see my garden in heaps upon the compost pile, my now green view taking on the shades of brown and gray common to winter months. This is not something I’m good at. I know though that in due time my garden will die, just as the icy cold mornings sure to follow will eventually fade into spring. I begin to fantasize about future gardens. I see new combinations of color, shape and form and dream of tastier tomatoes, longer standing spinach and find myself once again at springs door.
I’ve always been drawn to early spring settings where the gardener has worked cleverly with nature in creating a lush setting within a landscape newly emerging from winter’s rest. Bulbs are especially delightful at this time of year. Long before other plants break dormancy, many bulbs are in full flower. Most of us are familiar with crocus, tulips and daffodils as long awaited signs of spring. What many don’t realize though, is that there are some many other bulbs that are just plain under-utilized. Fritillaria meleagris, otherwise known as Guinea hen flower comes to mind. These have nodding, bell shaped heads, that are genuinely checkered in shades of maroon and white. Many other uncommon bulbs are members of the families we’re already familiar with, such as the species of tulips and iris.
I am particularly fond of the snow iris. These small plants begin flowering very early in the season, often peeking up through the snow. In my yard, bright yellow Iris danfordiae is the first to bloom. These are then followed by Iris reticulata. Mine are deep grape purple with yellow highlights, quite the show considering the time of year. They are also in crisp light and dark shades of blue. Species tulips are another of my favorites. These are recognizable as tulips, yet they are quite different from their later season cousins.
They are much smaller and daintier and tend to look best in rock gardens or where ‘naturalized’ by the gardener so as to appear wild.
In her book, The Undaunted Garden, Lauren Springer discusses many bulbs especially suited to the front range of Northern Colorado. Springer wrote the book while living and gardening in Windsor. She addresses things which tend to challenge gardeners in our area: drastic temperature fluctuations, drought and (that four letter, heart-chilling word) – hail!
Her “Bulb lawn” was one of my favorite ideas. It was planted with Buffalo grass, a drought tolerant native, then studded with 5,000 spring blooming bulbs. Buffalo grass is a warm season grass. It stays dormant until temperatures rise in late spring. Until then, the bulbs provide masses of color keeping an otherwise bland area vibrantly alive. By June, the old bulb foliage has died down as the lawn greens up. The old foliage is then easily raked away with old, dead grass from the previous season. All in all, very low maintenance and striking too!
As far as planting goes, bulbs will do best when our heavy clay soils are well amended with compost or peat to a depth of at least one foot. This makes it easier for young shoots to emerge in the spring and promotes good drainage (a must). They should be planted in mid-September through October to allow time for root growth and establishment before cold weather sets in. As a general rule of thumb, the depth of planting is four times the height of the bulb from soil surface to bulb tip. If your soil is still heavy after amendment, plant them 1-2 inches shallower than described above.
When thinking about how to use bulbs in your yard and garden, keep one thing in mind: like most flowers, bulbs look best in masses and not in straight lines. There is no more pitiful spring sight than a group of tulips (or crocus, daffodils, iris, etc.) lined up in a row like soldiers facing a firing squad.
I have been pleased to find many of the more unusual bulbs becoming available locally. Much of what I had to mail order in the past can now be found in local garden shops and nurseries. Another delight is price. Bulbs are generally not terribly expensive. I can buy several for the price of one good sized potted perennial. Many also multiply over the years, increasing populations, or allowing you to be generous with neighbors. Overall, a great deal for the pocket and winter weary soul.