October, November top months for bulbs
Posted: Tuesday, November 3, 2009 8:01 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams
O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather.
—Helen Hunt Jackson
Bright blue was notably scarce in October. A number of soirees scheduled by you or your friends have been sullied by gray, cold and even rainy weather. Very unusual for October, statistically and historically our driest month.
One garden activity to which the cold and gray has been amenable is planting of spring blooming bulbs. My stab-and-plant modus operandi is greatly eased and enhanced by wet soil. Some years October is so dry as to require irrigation to achieve such a state but this time around, no problem.
Don’t despair if you haven’t yet planted any bulbs. It is most definitely not too late. In fact, later blooming spring bulbs (i.e. tulips) actually prefer late planting, even up until Christmas if the ground is not frozen. Tulips like cold and, in fact, are much more permanent north of here. In our climate, expect tulips to be temporary. Nevertheless, I succumb to them some years, that is, those years when I can find them marked down to almost giveaway prices late in the fall after Christmas has begun to dominate most people’s minds.
The earlier the bloom, the earlier the bulb should be planted. Snowdrops and species crocuses, for instance, need to go in as soon as possible, followed by daffodils, Spanish bluebells, grape hyacinths, etc., and on down the line. The first year after planting, most bulbs will bloom a bit later than in ensuing years.
I can’t pass the crocus subject without mentioning, once again, my favorite crocus. The Tommie crocus, Crocus tommasinianus, with little flowers ranging from pale lavender to deep purple, is a species, not hybrid, crocus. The bulbs and flowers are smaller than the hybrids, but extremely prolific. From an original planting of 500 tommies some 15 years ago, we now have them by the thousands, naturalized in thin turf and borders. In the latter situation, where soil is enriched, they have grown into enormous clumps, some of which will provide 100 or more flowers.
Tommies will reproduce at the root and by seed fast enough to stay ahead of voles. The little underground rodents will decimate tulips and the hybrid crocuses faster than you can plant them, but tommies actually increase more rapidly than voles can consume them. Thus, the burgeoning of a planting from a few to thousands over time.
No tommies are ever seen in retail bulb outlets. One source is Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Va. Brent and Becky Heath are long-time bulb growers and importers who sell fine quality bulbs at reasonable prices. Get on the Internet and find tommie crocuses and other bulbs that suit your fancy on the Web site. Just Google up Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.
Among some other favorite bulbs in our garden are grape hyacinths. The most common is Muscari armeniacum. These are cheap and provide a spike of bloom resembling tiny grapes, as the common name suggests. They multiply and naturalize, but not as efficiently as a lesser know species, Muscari neglectum. As the botanical moniker would indicate, these can be planted and neglected for decades and will take over acres if allowed to. There is a field, somewhere in Stewart County, where these “bluebottles” can be seen by the hundreds of thousands. I passed it years ago while fishing one of the creeks there and can’t remember for the life of me the exact location. I’ve been back several times searching for it, but no luck.
Snowdrops rival crocuses for earliest bloom time. Sometimes a precocious one or two will peep forth as early as December, but most often they are a February feature. The bulbs of snowdrops, unfortunately, don’t keep well and the best way to get a start is to beg a few from a friend “in the green,” that is, right after they bloom and the foliage is still green. A clump of ten or so bulbs may be divided and will increase on their own for years, though more slowly than my impatience yearns for. After perhaps a quarter of a century, we have a few hundred.
Daffodils are so prolific and permanent they are familiar to all. Called (mistakenly) “buttercups” in the South, they can fight it out with honeysuckle, briars and fescue and come out on top. Rodent-proof, drought-proof, and resistant to nearly every enemy, old homeplaces have plantations of them remaining from a century or more ago.
The only problem with daffs is knowing which varieties are best, and it is mostly a matter of taste and which color or size suits your fancy. I prefer, for the most part, smaller and shorter ones that will stand up in the lousy weather of February and March. Big, blowsy hybrids will bend to the ground with heavy rain or sleet and get coated with splattered mud.
If I had to choose just one daff, it would be a tie between Rejnveld’s Early Sensation and Jetfire. The former is the earliest blooming daff and the latter among the fastest of increase. Rejnveld’s has often been in bloom for us by Christmas and always by late January, just ahead of the “wild buttercups,” of which we also have plenty.
Jetfire will increase rapidly from one bulb to 10 or more in short order, the context of “short” here being, say, three years or so. Our woodland is covered with them from an original 200 some 10 years ago.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 11.3.09
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path