Why grow fickle bulbs in Southeast Alaska?

Posted: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

What is there about hiding these little eggs in the garden that appeals to us all so much? Why would we dig up our flowerbeds, lift the carefully grown perennials and bury these fleshy little buds in the soil we have so lovingly prepared? Who, in their right mind would continue to perform an act that pays off so irregularly?

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to www.landscapealaska.com.

The killer winter of five years ago wiped out the majority of old bulb plantings in our town. This spring's drought cut into the tulip and daffodil performance, holding it to a fraction of its potential glory. But bulbs still command a faithful following that surpass any other gardening effort. They offer something other planting techniques don't. They promise exuberance and joy, in a form nothing else offers, and the delight of delayed gratification.

We plant them now, and it's an easy job, one that allows us to combine the joyful planting of next year's spring garden with the more melancholy acts of cleaning up and winterizing of our gardens. We cut down the bloomed out perennials, pick up the toys and balls that have been overgrown by the abundant foliage of the flowering shrubbery, trim back the summers growth of the evergreens and weed out the walks and patio edges. And we plant the bulbs.

The garden is still so pretty, and the soils are so mellow. The worms and spiders and dozens of unrecognized soil inhabitants are so happy and active. The crumbly earth feels like treasure in our fingers. It is obvious that this is a fertile and effervescent time, life abounds and our gardening senses are thrilled. And we plant the bulbs.

The patterns of the garden are clear in our mind's eye, we have been observing and interacting all summer, the faded bloom stalks still retain hints of the flaglike colors they bore so gaily. It is no great effort to recall the abundant, rich, layering effect of the months of delight that the place has given us. The time frames may be a little blurred, and we can't say exactly when that fragrant Bevans variety geranium was in color, but the rich hues of her leaves now are so satisfying. The ripening apples on the yellow transparent trees are fragrant too, and the sense of their spring bloom time is so clear and on one of those delightfully warm September days, we plant the bulbs.

Rake back the first of the season's leaves. Trim off the daylilies spent bloom stalks, cut the few perfect scapes for a bouquet and tie up the ripening berry clusters on the Wentworth highbush cranberry. Take a couple of minutes and enjoy the rich tones appearing in the leaves of the green cascade Japanese maple, the deep reds are still a couple of weeks away, but the golds and oranges are in full display now. Pastel reds and pretty creamy vanilla colors blend in the nodding tops of the late flowering Dutch yarrows, counterpointed by the bouncy white buds on the Siberian forms. On a day like this, plant bulbs.

Loosen the ties that have bound up delphiniums, salvage the few remaining stems with enough buds for the vase, and trim the rest back to ground. Run your fingers through Denticulata's lettuce-like foliage. Cut off the huge leaves and revel in the riches of her new offshoots. These pom pom primroses are so satisfying to grow. They love it here. While you are kneeling there, and you are in the mood, dig out a little curved space in front of these primulas, and plant a handful of grape hyacinths and a half dozen dwarf daffodils. They will be up just as the lavender blossoms of the primroses are at their best, and will make a lovely mixture.

The super performers of the spring bulb collection are late blooming giant tulips. Getting 3-feet tall and having buds as large as a mans fist, they open out flat every day and close up in the evening like huge slowly moving butterfly wings. They are too large to be set among the tiny spring blooming carpet flowers, and since it is their destiny to accompany the lilacs and roses of June, they should be set out where their rich display can be better appreciated. Plant them in masses, twenty-five bulbs to a hole, in a place where they will flank the big boys. Yes, we love to plant the bulbs.

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