Bulbs: The more you put in, the more you get out of them

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bulbs are like little jewel boxes that you bury in the fall and then forget about. When you need spring the most, they arrive as pearls held above the cold earth.

In fall, the bulb is a fully formed if embryonic flower, programmed to grow with moisture, cold and then warmth and longer days. So unless your spring bulbs are disturbed by squirrels or voles, or you put them in a swamp, or you leave them in a string bag until March, they are guaranteed to bloom. They are one of the few ironclad warranties in gardening.

That makes them ideal for beginners, as does their lesson that the best things in gardening are worth waiting for. What is less obvious is that bulbs never lose their spell for seasoned gardeners, either. The bulb world is just too diverse and beautiful to become wearisome.

As the garden writer Louise Beebe Wilder wrote in her 1936 book, "Adventures With Hardy Bulbs": "It is what I do not know rather than what I do know, that makes gardening eternally interesting to me."

It is another book, this one hot off the press, that continues to kindle the coals of bulb desire. Its author, Anna Pavord, a distinguished British writer, sums up her passion for bulbs thus: "I like the way they shoot into flower, do their thing, and then thoughtfully put themselves away again." Her book "Bulb" (Mitchell Beazley/Octopus Books USA, $40) is a fittingly lavish paean to her favorite form of plant, with scrumptious photographs by Andrew Lawson.

It is worth asking why the crocus pops up and down as it does, like a subterranean jack-in-the-box. This is odd, when you think of it. The holly tree might fruit annually, but it more or less just sits there.

Most garden bulbs derive from plants native to the hills and mountains of central Asia, places that are cold and damp in winter but witheringly dry and hot in summer. This isn't a problem if you can sit out the inferno as a sleeping bulb below ground. The trait of dormancy also has enabled the mass production, harvesting and shipping of bulbs, often from Dutch fields, to gardens near and far.

Pavord doesn't limit her gaze to spring bulbs, though she calls the tulip, in all its forms, the queen of all bulbs. I agree, until I see a snow white show daffodil with a salmony pink cup. Bulb lovers are an inclusive lot, lumping other types of storage organs into the assortment: corms (crocus, gladiolus), tubers (gloriosa lily, winter aconite) and rhizomes (anemones, trillium).

Reading the book and ogling the pictures, I realize how many more varieties I'd love to grow and haven't.

Pavord and Lawson have convinced me that my garden is lacking in both spring- and fall-flowering crocus, anemones, certain tulips and alliums. Alliums are the flowering onions that put up the lovely, usually purple globes on green drumsticks in May, after the tulips fade.

One autumn, I went mad and planted hundreds of them. The following spring the alliums flowered with the catmint and Siberian iris, and the garden for a couple of weeks was a study in blue and violets. But alliums don't come back like daffodils, and for about four years afterward, there were feeble echoes of my allium bonanza, with odd runts flowering sporadically. I would have felt more comfortable without them.

My gardening chum Peter has had luck with the Persian onion, Allium aflatuense (Purple Sensation is a popular variety), but then he lifts and stores them after flowering.

The key to keeping alliums and many other spring bulbs long-lived is to put them back on that Turkish hillside in summer, figuratively, by placing them in dry, well-draining soil. Our native clay soil and our need to water plants in summer are hard on bulbs. Pavord points out that irrigation systems are the death of so many bulbs.

Even if you regard alliums as an annual, they are lovely, architectural accent points at a time when perennials are beginning to bulk up.

Pavord reminds us too that there is a whole crocus world beyond the large-flowered Dutch hybrids and even the daintier and early Crocus tommasinianus. I need to get my hands on Crocus angustifolius, golden yellow brushed with deep purple; Blue Bird, a confection in white, purple and yellow; and Gypsy Girl, a strong yellow with brown-purple streaking on the outer petals.

I like parrot tulips; they're ruffled and distorted, and in the warmth of late April they open fully to reveal contrasting colors at their inner base. Through Lawson's lens, Blue Parrot looks ravishingly decadent. The lily-flowered tulips, with long, pointed petals, restore elegance to the tulip show. Ballerina is the only orange-flowered lily type, and fragrant. I just picked up the phone and ordered 50.

"One of the few infallible rules of gardening is that no garden can have too many bulbs," writes Pavord. "Splurge. It is the only way."

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