The lone voice of horticultural reason

Designing With Bulbs

For the first time since early April the furnace is on in my house, and as I sit at my computer late this night I faintly sense the rhythmic throbbing of my home’s winter pulse. If the oddly pleasant smell of stale duct air reaching my nose isn’t enough to remind me that the end of our gardening season is nearing, my six-year-old son’s dinnertime monologue on what he’ll be for Halloween (tough call between a lion or a Man in Black) makes it clear. We have some time left, but for this column I’d better start tying up some loose ends.

In late May I wrote about the advantages to creating new growing beds, and/or rejuvenating the ones at hand. Did I mention to vegetable gardeners that strange as it may seem, your yield will be down a bit the first year in a new bed? Oops. Does it help if I remind you that the second year and for years after are when you will reap noticeable reward for all that digging, sweating, renting of rototillers, purchasing of peat moss and schlepping of cow manure? I didn’t think so.

Then just last week I ran out of room while offering some observations on bulbs (“Go Wild with Fall Bulbs), and may have left the impression that I don’t care for tulips. On the contrary, I love tulips, it’s just I find them a bit troublesome in that come early spring I’m busy dividing and moving perennials around, only to find my design plans somewhat stifled because I can’t disturb the tulips I planted several years before.

To avoid this, especially if you are planting tulips next week for the first time, do what I never did my first five years of gardening: wait until you’re pretty well satisfied with your overall design plan before investing heavily in tulips (or daffodils), then consider each group planting of bulbs the same as a shrub. We place shrubs as permanent foundations in our design, with no intention of moving them. Oh I know, plenty of avid gardeners out there are saying, “No, silly, you can dig tulip bulbs up in the fall and replant them in a better place,” to which all I can say is, you are better gardeners than I. There are weeks when I barely have time to mow the Green Plague, much less tend to my garden, and weekends already upon me this fall where work, wife, six-year-old son and 50-year-old house all have different, valid ideas about how I should spend my time. Not to mention how digging up and replanting bulbs in the fall would involve remembering where the heck I planted them in the first place.

I also left out a word last week, and meant to say that a planting of 10 to 12 tulip or daffodil bulbs is the minimum number most find attractive. Your style and taste may differ, I just know that my earlier experiments planting six over here and a few over there and one here and two there made for a disappointing spring show. Try planting 10 to 12 tulips a foot or two back from the front of a bed near the street, then several similar plantings farther back and over there, then a spot of 30 or 40 in a different area farther back yet, with a final splash of eighty or more bulbs up near the house, and you’ll get the dazzling type of effect that makes traffic slow down, particularly if the plantings are placed such that the eye zig-zags up through your yard as it follows the color from the street to the house. It’s the old water analogy: a meandering stream widening into rapids culminating in a roaring waterfall. That’s all good garden design is, mimicking principles of nature already designed. (I’ll make a note to write about Japanese garden design next year. The Japanese really nail this stuff.)

Then allow your gardening skills to race light-years ahead of mine by remembering to mark the perimeter of each bulb grouping with 4 to 5 short, green bamboo stakes for that fateful fall when you want (and have the time) to move them!

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener