Except for sloshing about in the fish pool with waterlilies, nothing in all gardening is so satisfying as planting bulbs in the fall.
I kick myself today for not having ordered any hyacinth bulbs, as they were cheaper than usual and most of my old ones, planted 15 years ago, have now disappeared. But at the time I was afraid of going bankrupt. How foolish. I could have just skipped city taxes for a year and got more bulbs than I have space to grow them in.
Washington is singularly blessed in the matter of tulips. In many parts of our country tulip bulbs bloom once, or at best twice, and then peter out. Here they often last for many years. I still have a few 'Jewel of Spring' planted more than 15 years ago that still bloom every April. That one is a light yellow Darwin hybrid, and of the half-dozen or so varieties of that class of tulip that I have tried, it is the best both in beauty and in permanence.
But the others are not to be sniffed at, and some of the most gorgeous of all red tulips are in this group.
But we'll never get anywhere if we start discussing the classes into which tulips fall. I would like us to get it clear that Darwin hybrids are the result of crossing Darwin tulips with the wild Tulipa fosteriana. They are therefore different from Darwins. For those with space and some spare cash, tulips of all kinds should be planted. They last in bloom in the garden for as long as three weeks -- that is, a clump of one variety may be in bloom that long -- and if early kinds and late kinds are planted, the season is a good five weeks, or even longer when bulbs are planted in different exposures.
I like to plant tulips about Nov. 10, after the ground has cooled but before it has frozen. But in some years I have planted them late in December. The site for tulips should be sunny, or at least with four hours of direct sun a day. They also grow well enough in light woodland or beneath trees of high branching. They often do well in places where azaleas flourish.
Like most bulbs, tulips like to be dry in the summer. In borders that are often watered for the benefit of summer and fall flowers, tulips will prove more permanent if their site is dug 20 inches or so and if the bulbs rest on an inch-thick layer of sand, but I have some that still bloom after 12 years in a narrow border that's heavily watered in late July for the benefit of some daylilies, roses and other oddments. They would do better if they were dry, but they do well enough. Still, if you like to dig, and most gardeners do, a good sandy clay loam dug even 2 1/2 feet deep would be splendid. I have never dug a bed that deep myself, but I have seen it done and I know it is worth doing if you have a good back doctor.
Daffodils do not have much of a color range, just white and yellow with touches of pink and red in the cups of some. If you view daffodils at a little distance, it is astonishing to notice that the effect of the finest modern varieties is virtually identical with the effect of old daffodils of 50 years ago.
So for garden effect, it is not necessary to grow novelty daffodils. And yet for city gardeners, who usually have space for no more than one bed, it is both sensible and rewarding to grow only the most beautiful kinds. These are a matter of personal taste. Some gardeners dislike double daffodils, the ones with globular blooms, and others (including me) heartily dislike the ones with split coronas, that is with the cup appearing in several segments that lie back against the circle of outer petals instead of forming a solid cup. Obviously, grow the kinds you like.
The trumpet daffodils, the ones with big cups so long they no longer look like cups but like trumpets, come in white and yellow, and some are greenish. They are early, followed in a few days (and in our fine continental sunny climate they often bloom all together) by the large-cup kinds. As a group, these are both tough and beautiful, except for the solid whites, which are beautiful but not always very permanent. It is among the large-cup kinds that you find gorgeous combinations of yellow petals in a circle surrounding a cup of scarlet.
A bit later come the small-cup daffodils, and it could be argued that the most beautiful of all daffodils are here. They often have white petals in the perianth, or circle of petals, and short cups of various colors. Some cups are white rimmed with fawn.
Garden centers and hardware stores usually have good color pictures showing what the different varieties look like. If the gardener is smitten with daffodils, he can join daffodil societies and go in for daffodils that cost a lot more than standard kinds and often surpass ordinary varieties in waxy texture, firmness of substance and so on. They produce no better general effect in the garden but the individual blooms are surprisingly beautiful.
There are miniature daffodils, too, which grow only 6 inches or so in height, some lower than that, with marvelous flowers of quite small size. Also there are daffodils tougher than the miniatures (which tend to die out as a group) that have larger flowers on stems about a foot or 15 inches high. Many of these spring from the wild Narcissus cyclamineus, and such favorite kinds as 'February Gold' bloom with me about March 15, sometimes a week earlier.
Few daffodils are more delightful than the late jonquilla kinds, such as the now plentiful 'Suzy,' a tall yellow with red cup, and 'Sweetness,' an earlier yellow well named. Also late in the season -- late April -- come the poeticus kinds such as the well-known 'Actaea,' with white petals, a very short cup of yellow with a rim of red, and inside a touch of green. Various hybrids of the nodding wild Narcissus triandrus also come late, such as the beautiful 'Thalia,' and even lovelier 'Rippling Waters,' both solid white.
All these daffodils are planted in September or October. In other words, right this minute, and while I have planted them on occasion as late as February that is absurd. They go in early.
I would urge beginning gardeners who are perhaps trying tulips and daffodils for the first time to grow a few bulbs, even if only three or five, of a number of varieties from the different groups. With tulips I especially commend the Darwin hybrids, but you must not neglect the others either, for it is in the later-season tulips that you find such gorgeous colors as purple and bronze and white flushed with rose and so on.
If the bulb budget is limited, I think the most pleasure will come from a handful of bulbs in a number of varieties rather than from 50 or 100 of one kind. Treated reasonably, even without the best site or the most carefully prepared bed, they will give pleasure for years.
Some daffodil plantings, especially of the older varieties, are known to have bloomed for more than 50 years without disturbance. In small gardens, I suggest leaving the tulips alone to last as many years as they will, and for daffodils I would dig the bulbs up in late June after they have bloomed two to five years, drying them off in the shade and replanting in September. The increase in bulbs can be gratifying.