The lone voice of horticultural reason

Go Wild With Fall Bulbs

9-19-97 – Tulips and daffodils, tulips and daffodils, tulips and daffodils. Splendid bloomers? Yes. A springtime must for every Minnesota garden? Absolutely. The only bulbs to plant this fall? Certainly not! Planting nothing but tulips and daffodils for our spring color is like relying on just two herbaceous perennials to create an interesting mid-summer flower bed. I’ll confess loud and proud that daffodils get pretty boring (especially if, like me, you chuckle at the bi-colored Frankenstein’s monsters the industry hybridizers unleash each year) and growing tulips in Minnesota can be a pain in the neck. Try planting some of the other, lesser-known bulbs and corms in your garden this fall and you’ll be amazed by the variety of sizes, colors, forms and smells you’ll discover next spring. Here are a few you’ll find in the garden centers right now:

Crocus – OK, no big surprise here, plenty of you grow it, but for those new to gardening these are among the earliest to bloom; 3″ varieties like ‘Blue Bird’ often push their blooms up through the early April remnants of snow.
Muscari – The very first exotic bulb I grew after completing the mandatory four years of tulip and daff planting. Small bubbles of pure white flowers cover the top half of the grass-like leaves and stalks in a cannonball pattern. Only 6″ tall, they hold their blooms up to three weeks.
Fritillaria – A new bed of mine by the street is going to hold shade perennials next year that need consistent moisture, so I’m trying this one for the first time-it tolerates damp spots, a condition usually spelling death-by-rot for bulbs. The flowers hang downward (“pendant”) in white and purple-and-white checkerboards.
Eranthis – A short, early yellow bloomer that works well in combination with crocus. Actually prefers partial shade, a rarity for spring-blooming bulbs.
Allium – onion, for short, June bloomers in the 2′ to 4′ range. The one I grow, A. giganteum produces 4″ blue spheres atop 40″ stems that everyone in the neighborhood comments on.

All the above can be planted now through the next three, even four weeks, the way this summer’s been hanging on. The shorter varieties above give you the design contrast you need when dealing with nothing but Tulips and Daffs and their 14″ to 18″ ranges. Daffodils should be planted now but hold off on tulips until the first week of October. Remember, bulbs may have developed over the centuries into genetic wonders but they’re still dumb as posts, tulips being the dumbest. Plant tulips in the warm soil of September, water them, and if we get a sunny & mild October they’ll not only establish roots they’ll proceed straight ahead into Plan A, which is to bloom, and will pop their tips up out of the ground just about the same time you’re putting fresh spark plugs in the snowblower.

The most crucial element to growing bulbs successfully is that they be planted in well-drained soil. Add coarse sand if yours is not. Scratch super-phosphate or bulb food into the top of the soil and water them in well. In our region tulips can be planted twice as deep as the book says, 10″ or so, so they have some chance of not rotting in the ground next summer after we water the annuals we plant in June above the tulip bulbs.

Plant bulbs in large quantities. 10 to 12 bulbs of any type is the minimum for one planting. Avoid planting in a single uniform line, like soldiers in a row. If one soldier goes AWOL next spring and the design falls apart.

Part of the problem with tulips and daffodils is they’re so darn tall. Even the shortest tulips will usually rise up a foot or more, and unless they are massed in large number they can look a little awkward towering above otherwise barren earth. For this reason it’s wise to keep smaller plantings of tulips and daffodils-a dozen bulbs or less-away from the very front of the border. Set them back aways, from the middle to the rear of the bed, and they’ll look nicer.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener