Green Scene

Maximizing Color While Minimizing Work

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By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gardeners who are seeking a lot of color with little maintenance can get both from summer-blooming bulbs, which should be planted soon.

Once established, bulbs tend to return perennially with colorful displays of flowers. Most bulbs that bloom in spring, such as daffodils, tulips, leucojum and crocuses, are planted in fall. Many colorful bulbs that bloom in summer are planted when the soil begins to warm in spring.

The word "bulb" is a somewhat generic term for plants with food-storing roots. These can technically be corms, rhizomes, tubers or fleshy rhizome-like roots, rather than true bulbs. Dahlias, for instance, are tubers. Gladioli are corms, and cannas, alstroemeria and other plants with elongated, thickened roots are rhizomes.

Most of these are available in a variety of shapes and sizes. Each type has guidelines concerning planting. Make sure to follow the proper directions for each variety so you will get full advantage of their blooms.

There are bulbs for every location and situation. Some, such as irises and cannas, will grow in bogs or even in ponds; others, such as crocosmia and milkweed (asclepias), prefer dry, sunny conditions. Tuberous begonias, rodgersia and hostas do well in partial or shady locations.

Bulbs work well when used along with perennials in borders. Summer flowering bulbs not only will complement perennials, but also will fill in during seasons when perennials aren't making a show. Some bulbous plants that lend themselves to this type of use are hostas, daylilies, Joe-pye weed, agapanthus, lilium and liatris. Bulb foliage will die or begin to look tired, but most should not be cut back until it withers. When inter-planted with other flora, the foliage will be covered and the unattractive fading blooms and foliage will go unnoticed.

Some gardeners use drifts of bulbs or rhizomatous plants in a naturalized way, planting large numbers of irises, daylilies or crocosmia that seem to surge onto the landscape. This works especially well in meadow or edge-of-the-woods situations.

Bulbs are ideal for creating a formal look, too. They're an excellent addition to knot gardens and for other formal shapes, such as circles and squares. When planted in drifts, they add strong repetition, which is one of the easiest ways to create unity, as well as formality, especially with broad sweeps of a single color.

Bulbs can also be used as ground covers, in containers and hanging baskets or in rock gardens.

Although many plants with food-storage roots are completely hardy in this region, some are not. If we have an exceptionally cold winter, marginally hardy bulbs may not survive. If you enjoy summer bulbs and want to ensure that they survive the winter, it might be necessary to dig them in fall and keep them in a cool, dark place for a few months. Dahlias and cannas, for example, are sensitive to cold. When siting them, keep in mind that they may have to be dug, stored and replanted.

Many bulbs prefer light, well-drained soil and may require special care. If you are installing them with other plants you might have to prepare the bulbs' sites differently than those of their neighbors.

Don't give up on planting bulbs because of squirrels or rabbits digging them up or deer eating them. The solution for squirrels and rabbits is to plant the bulbs under wire mesh anchored with soil or to use a rabbit or squirrel repellent such as Rabbit Stopper or Squirrel Stopper. The solution for deer is to use deer-repellent spray such as Deer Stopper or Liquid Fence. Another strategy is to plant bulbs the animals don't like, such as crocosmia, allium, iris and lily.


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