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It may seem premature, even cowardly, to begin talking about planting fall bulbs while late summer flowers have still to open, but here we are and the time is now, so let's go on. Bulbs are Southeast Alaska's crowning glory; nowhere else have I ever seen the stunning colors last so long, or be greeted with such joy.
I suppose that it is long, dark winters -- or perhaps long, wet summers -- but the sight of the first daffodils pushing up through snow always sends me out to touch and smell them. I love the fragrance: sort of sweet and sort of sour, and very herby. There is nothing else that smells anything like them.
Crocus come earlier and tulips have so many more colors, but the hundreds of subtle tones of yellow, white, orange and pink that the narcissus tribe exhibit have me swimming in pleasure. The range of sizes, textures and numbers of flowers on a stem are less varied than many other species. The span of bloom times is so defined, April into June, no extremely early types or odd late bloomers. Soil and exposure criteria are common, no exotic substances or special fertilizers. No hormone sprays are needed, no tickling the anthers with the eraser of a pencil or cutting to a five-leaved bud.
You just plant them where you want to see color in spring, and go on about your business. You don't water them, or prune them, or even think anything about them until spring comes, and then, there they are, popping up out of the ground in fistfuls. Pointed green fingers holding treasures in their palms, and when they open their clutched hands out pours golden glory.
Years ago Margaret and I met an old man who was the world's champion daffodil hybridizer. He invited us to his spring open house in his small cottage outside Salem, Ore. Grant Mitch was his name, and he had been crossing and collecting and recrossing daffodils for 60 years. It was an epiphany; an eye-opening experience that changed the way I saw the world forever.
There were about three acres of carefully planted rows of daffodils. There were no more than 50 of any one type and there were hundreds of types. Most were his longtime favorites, crisp and strong with yellows so vibrant that it made you think you had never seen yellow before. Oranges and creamy soft golds were paired with fluted lips and graceful slender petals; vibrant reds made rings around the tips of soft pink tubes held up by pure whites. Oh, these were daffodils to dream of.
If you wanted to win the daffodil section of the local flower show you would plant these and wipe out competition. These were champions like those rarefied canines at the Westminster Kennel Club. They had been to the bench, been compared to the best in the world and come home with the ribbons. Some were new ones he had been raising for only a few years, not so recognizable as winners yet, but having the bloodlines of their neighbors and only waiting for their chance at the trials. I loved it and will carry that vision of the daffodil breeding stables all my life.
When I plant daffodils in my yard, I revisit that field of champions. I never bury those apple-crisp bundles of future pleasure without telling them that they too carry the blood of world-class competitors. And when they rush into bloom in spring they fulfill my every expectation.
Long ago we realized that the dried condition in which we buy bulbs is not a natural one. If you have ever dug up a daffodil in your garden while you were looking for something else, you saw a fleshy fluid-filled thing, much more like an onion freshly pulled from the ground. There was no sense of storage or sleep in that organ. It had roots that were firm and white and full of life, it was still intimately involved with the surrounding soil and its plant neighbors.
Bulbs are like that when the farmer digs them up; they are not the hard, dried things we get. The grower dries them up so that they can be shipped and handled and stored. The vital living heart of the bulb plant is forced into dormancy.
We gardeners release them from that state of suspended animation, we return them to their beloved underground habitats, give them moisture and a good meal, and they roar back into life. They want to be back there, help send them home, plant them in the ground as soon as you can.
David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com