Now the season for planting bulbs is here, that season of simple-minded hope.
But unlike many other activities that promise paradise and deliver something quite different, bulb-planting provides three times the reward that even the most optimistic gardener dreamed of.
Daffodils are the main thing. Ideally they are planted in ground that was dug 20 inches deep months ago, with a great deal of peat moss dug in and some quite rotted horse manure (and a crop of zinnias or something grown on it through the summer and now pulled up).
But let us consider the case of that exceptional gardener, one in a thousand, who for some reason has failed to do all this. I bring cheer. Even if the gardener has done nothing much but play tennis all summer he can still acquire a few daffodil bulbs and plant them with four inches of dirt over the tops of the bulbs and sit back for a fine display in April.
I strongly recommend some of the early daffodils, the kind so bountifully planted along Rock Creek Parkway near the Kennedy Center. Every year people are startled to see them "so early." From the middle of March. Good early kinds that are widely sold in Washington garden centers include the brilliant waxy yellow 'February Gold' and 'Peeping Tom.'
These are both cyclamineus hybrids, derived from a wild Spanish daffodil, and some years these two varieties remain in bloom a full four weeks. In other years they may last outdoors only three weeks, but no daffodils surpass them for prolonged early color. And the flowers are delightfully shaped as well, the six petals flaring back. Another good one, not quite so early, but smaller (maybe only eight inches high) is 'Jack Snipe,' a neat thing in white and yellow. Other good ones, not so often seen in the shops, are the white 'Jenny,' which is a week or so later than the ones mentioned, and the soft yellow 'Charity May.'
If only a few daffodils are to be grown, I suggest the first two because they come when the gardener is keen for spring.
Where it is feasible, the gardener will give pleasure if he plants a few of these bright flowers out front of the house where passers-by will see them. It need not be any lavish display, just three bulbs will make a considerable show and will increase to a large fat clump within two or three years.
Here I am thinking of row houses and condominiums where the garden may be no larger than an old-fashioned kitchen pantry -- even there, a few daffodils will give more pleasure than seems possible, until you try it.
Where there is room, there should be many varieties of daffodil, to provide bloom for six weeks or more. Where money is short, it makes sense to buy a single bulb of a variety or the smallest quantity sold. Even one bulb will usually produce two flowers the first spring, and within three years or so will increase to produce 10 or 20 blooms, which may not sound like a great show, but try it and see.
Tulips are commonly planted later, around mid-November. It is virtually impossible to go wrong with any variety now in commerce, and all that is necessary is to look at the colored pictures which are quite faithful portraits.
Among tulips a gardener should certainly begin his purchases (especially if he is buying only a few) with the ones called Darwin Hybrids. These have quite large blooms, as a group, blooming early in April and lasting well in the harsh weather we may expect then. My particular favorite is 'Jewel of Spring,' a soft slight yellow with an almost invisible scarlet rim to the petals. Until I dug them up, I had some of these tulips growing in the same spot undisturbed for perhaps eight years, and the surprising thing was that the flowers were rather large even after so many years.
As far as that goes, tulips are more reliable here than in places farther south, and given a good sunny spot to begin with, and reasonable soil fertility, they may very well come up every spring for five years or more without any attention from the gardener. After flowering the plants are left strictly alone until the leaves die down naturally.
All bulb flowers will suffer and die out within a couple of years if the leaves are hacked off. The sorry look of the plants as the foliage matures and withers is much exaggerated. It doesn't look that bad. Daffodil leaves may be cut five weeks after they finish blooming, and before the leaves are fully withered, but not before then.
The thing to warn against is deep shade. Both daffodils and tulips will do all right in dappled shade, as you find beneath old oak trees where the grass does not grow very well but still grows enough to have to be cut occasionally.
They are quite pretty in woodlands, too, though the gardener will find it is more work than he thought to plant bulbs in an old mature woodland, which will be found to have more tough old roots than seems possible. And when planting bulbs in shade or woods, you really should give them a good send-off in the way of deep digging and some bone meal.
People sometimes ask how far apart to plant bulbs. It makes no great difference, but say eight inches apart for daffodils and six inches for tulips. They can be grown even closer together than this, but it seems pointless to jam them in so thick you can't see the individual flowers.
Where large quantities are being planted to be viewed at a distance (as along a golf course), they will still show up admirably if planted a foot apart. In such places they may be left alone for years, like the ones in Rock Creek Park.