In April when we’re waiting impatiently for the grass to green up, for the trees to get leaves, and for color of any kind in our landscape, hardy, perennial bulbs give us the first colorful blooms of spring in our gardens.
Definition: A bulb is defined as “a complete miniature plant encased in fleshy modified leaves which contain stores of food.” Tulips, narcissus, crocus, allium, hyacinth, and lilies are all familiar hardy bulbs. Chionodoxa, snow drops, dwarf iris, and scilla are lesser-known, small, hardy bulbs. Although often classified with bulbs, gladious corms, begonia and dahlia tubers, and German bearded iris rhizomes are not “true” bulbs.
Origin & History: A few bulbs– allium and some lilies– are native to North America. Most other bulbs are native to Mediterranean-area climates where there is not a lot of precipitation which makes bulbs the perfect plants for your water-wise garden. Tulips originated in the Turkish Empire in what is now Russia. Long before tulips got to Holland they were cultivated by the Turks. In the late 16th Century, tulip bulbs made their way to Holland where they were hybridized and became very popular, selling for huge prices. Speculation and trading on the expensive bulbs caused “Tulipmania”. Bulbs were even used as currency for a time in Holland until the tulip market burst in 1637. Holland still raises the bulk of the world’s bulbs.
Original native tulips, called ‘species’, look quite different from the tall hybrid tulips we are used to; species tulips are shorter, bloom earlier but are longer lived. Narcissus, commonly called daffodils, are native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. They also have been extensively hybridized to create longer stems and bigger blossoms.
Planting and care: In our climate, plant most bulbs in September or October in well-drained, fertile soil. Good soil is important because you want your bulbs to last for years. Amend heavy clay soils with organic matter—compost or peat moss. Beware that a fertilizer containing bone meal might be dug up by dogs. The general rule is to plant bulbs to a depth 3 times the height of the bulb or more. Bulbs planted too shallow may be weak or not overwinter well. Space larger bulbs at least 6” apart and small ones 3”.
After bulbs bloom, they need to store food for next year so let their leaves “ripen”; when ripe, leaves will turn brown and readily pull free. Bulbs multiply–the clump gets larger each year. Eventually, you may need to dig up your bulbs and divide them. Hybrid tulips decline and may need to be replaced every 5 years or so. Tulips are sometimes planted as annuals—pulled up and discarded after they bloom to make room for other flowers.
Where to plant: Bulbs can be planted under trees, between perennial flowers, or in a bed where you will be planting annual flowers. Or, naturalize bulbs in your lawn. Bulbs do well in full sun or partial shade, but avoid planting them in overly wet spots.
Plant bulbs in large masses of individual species. The smaller the flower, the more bulbs you will need to create a stunning mass of color. Mix bulbs into your perennial flower beds so the foliage of the perennial flower, as it grows, masks the dying leaves of your bulbs. Bulbs are effective planted among ground cover plants like lamium or sedum . Plan for a continuous bloom of bulbs all spring by planting early bulbs, mid-season bulbs, and late-spring bloomers. Fall crocus (colchicum) grows leaves in the spring which die back and then, in the fall, it blooms; its pale lavender color makes Colchicum a real attention getter against fall colors of yellow and orange.
Plant some bulbs this fall– next spring you’ll be glad you did.