THE FIRST SPRING FLOWERS ARE BULBS PLANTED IN THE FALL
Nothing announces that spring has truly sprung like the sunshine yellow of daffodils poking their heads above the earth even with patches of snow still present on the ground. The American poet, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, describes crowds of daffodils dancing and fluttering and their heavenly welcomed presence on the previously stark, barren landscape. At just about the same time, birds begin to sing again in the wee hours of morning announcing their journey north to build nests for their young. Both telltale signs that the days are getting longer and color will rapidly improve the mostly gray, stark New England winter landscape that more often than not outstays its welcome. It is in fall, however, that the bulbs bursting with Van Gogh like color must be planted.
Daffodils, tulips, irises, hyacinth, muscari, allium, crocus, and lilies are just a few of the options for waking up the spring garden. There are few rules that must be adhered to, but many ideas on how to make the most of these first signs of spring. Daffodils are wonderful for the seemingly unlimited varieties and their longevity as perennials. Also referred to as narcissus, or jonquils, daffodils seem to maintain their color and flower size for three to five years before they must be replaced. Choose the variety that induces the most smiles when they begin popping up through the muddy earth in late March. Then choose daffodils that will brighten the garden for most of April and early May. Most daffodils do well in areas that will become shade gardens the rest of the year as their petals open before the leaves on the trees hovering above them have unfurled. Once daffodils have bloomed and the flowers passed, leave the leaves for six weeks to nurture the bulbs for the following year's blooms.
The Ottoman Empire, present day Turkey, is responsible for cultivating spring's darling, the tulip. According to Tesselaar Bulbs, "the history of the Tulip is filled with intrigue, skulduggery, thievery, instant fortunes and broken hearts." In the 16th century the tulip arrived in the Netherlands and soon became the "ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity", so much so that a black market for stolen tulip bulbs flourished. It is the variety of color and height and most likely their bloom timing that make tulips so dog gone appealing in the spring garden.
While touted as a perennial bulb, it makes most sense to plant tulip bulbs each fall and pull them six weeks after the end of their flowering. The leaves and stems droop and do nothing for a garden enthusiast's enjoyment. Tulips require vernalization (exposure to prolonged cold) to flower properly and with unpredictable temperatures, these bulbs have become unreliable perennials. More often than not, each year the leaves and stem grow larger and the flower sadly smaller. If there is an inconspicuous spot in the garden, pull the spent bulbs, shake off the dirt, cut off any greens, dry out in the hot sun for a day or two before putting in a paper bag to store in a cool, dry place until late fall when they can be replanted and used for cutting indoor bouquets the following year.
Planting tulips, like planting most bulbs, should be done in larger groupings when night temperatures are around 40 to 50 degrees F. and a few weeks before the first hard frost and as late as December in New England. Tulips appear lonely if not planted close enough together. The most spectacular tulip displays are those in which large numbers of complimentary colors are planted in clusters that seem to naturally roam through a garden bed--avoid planting tulips in straight lines. It takes about 45 minutes to plant 100 tulip bulbs. Pick an area for planting that will have afternoon sun in the spring. Tulips like dry beds with lots of sunshine. Mice and voles eat these bulbs so if these rodents are a problem, sprinkle cayenne pepper on the bulbs or add a bit of kitty litter to the hole dug for the bulb.
What are those huge purple blooms below? Glorious Globemaster allium! Nearly three feet tall with 8" diameter balls of silvery purple star-shaped florets, this bulb delivers a visual punch. It is a perennial, but gardeners beware: allium leaves are enormous and will inhibit growth of other perennials below their foliage. It makes a lot of sense to cut the leaves after the flowers bloom and to treat this bulb as an annual. If leaves are left to wither naturally, also note that much like tulips, allium bulbs need vernalization. New England winters remain unpredictable and may be too warm to produce the giant flowers year after year.
While most gardeners view the autumn as the end of landscaping bliss and a time for little more than raking leaves and removing debris, it may give hope to consider that fall is truly the beginning, really the foundation of the health and quality of the garden following the spring equinox. Brave souls should consider late September through the second week of November as a gardener's dream planting time. Cooler temperatures allow deep roots to grow on flowers, shrubs and trees. Without the worry of providing nutrients to buds, leaves, berries, and flowers, plants may focus on the hard work of establishing a healthy deep root system, particularly important as water becomes more scarce. Don a hat and some gloves, a few bulbs and start digging.