Bulb time means real pleasure for the future

Posted: Wednesday, October 03, 2001

Somewhere leaves are gently turning colors and softly drifting down. Here they are being wrenched off the branches and sent twisting away into the sky by gale force winds cloaked in cold rain. The close covering of dark clouds parts occasionally so we can see snowy progress on surrounding mountains. Ski boarders rejoice, cross-country skiers wax poetic, and the Eaglecrest season passes just went on sale.

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

You might think that gardeners would be disappointed or down in the dumps over the seasonal changes, but that would be an error. This is one of the most exciting times of the year and we are all buzzing with anticipation.

Bulbs are here, those treasured eggs of anticipation, those waves of color-in-potential, those seasonal markers and source of spring's richest, fullest experience. Bins, boxes and bags of bulbs; wheelbarrows, wagons and wains of bulbs; trucks, tubs and trunks of bulbs. Juneau is inundated in bulbs and we are bubbling.

Our greenhouse has become a haven of squirrels this year, the population has soared and one can see the zip and flash of tiny bodies all over the nursery. They love bulbs for another reason altogether - they eat them. Not the daffodils, just the tulips, so we had to go to the state surplus sale and get metal file cabinets to keep these treasures safe.

So here we are, in the midst of the most exciting activity of the year, when we emulate those squirrels, burying our treasures, humming our planting songs and counting our chickens before they are hatched. We walk about considering how the grounds will appear after the winter, when these quiescent lumps are reanimated. They will slip slowly up from the muddy soil, getting greener every day until they suddenly are not green any longer. They will explode into color.

This area will be thick with deep rich pink. No, no wait! It will first be pale cream for a few weeks, with a pure white edge. THEN it will be pink or should it be orange with red flashes?

Well why not both? First pink. Then, after the first wave of tulips passes and the late blooming giant beauties come along, it can be the coral with the red edges. These giant tulips have proven the best here. They are strong enough to withstand the winds and they wait until June to bloom so days are warmer. But nights are still cool, so the flowers seem to last forever.

Lennie Gorsuch brought us a bouquet from her garden last year that had some of these that were 10 inches across. As they opened and closed each day they looked like huge butterflies. She said they lasted for weeks like that and she was not alone. People all over the borough have discovered the ease and satisfaction that these garden giants provide.

There is something so satisfying about planting bulbs. For one thing it is easy, and after one learns that planting one bulb in one hole is too hard, the jump to digging a larger hole and planting dozens at a time seems obvious. When I went through the line at Fred Meyers last week, Judy told me she was reminding people how they could layer the bulbs, and said that she no longer had a copy of my article about that technique.

The idea is simple: Imagine how it works in the wild world where the bulbs are wild creatures, too, and in their homelands they occupy vertical space underground. Some, like crocus, are shallow; some a little deeper; and others, like oriental lilies that bloom right now, pull themselves a foot underground.

We can duplicate that pattern by layering bulbs in the hole as we plant them. The earliest will bloom first. Then the second will come right up next to it, fresh and bright, and the next and the next. We can plant a late-emerging perennial like astilbe or cranesbill geranium on top of the whole pile. That way the fading foliage of the whole mass is covered by the new growth of the perennial and there is no unsightly pile of yellowing leaves to deal with. This is how they would grow in those ancient and uncultivated paradises we strive to emulate in our domestic arrangements.

No matter what the temporary discomfort of the weather, this is truly a season of anticipation; it gives us the opportunity of working in that fourth dimension, when we plant bulbs we plant for the future.

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