I have always liked this statement that I made up: “Only a gardener understands that something that fits in the palm of your hand can turn into something beautiful in just a few months’ time.”
The mailman has delivered stacks of bulb catalogs with page after page of tempting spring bloomers: daffodils, tulips, crocuses, hyacinths and some that may not be household names like alliums and tommies.
My first choice was Gritty Southern Daff Blend, not only because the name was appealing, but because this mixture does well in the South’s unpredictable weather. Already sold out!
Instead, I chose an oldie but goodie, Carlton, among others. Carlton can handle our heat and humidity.
I can trace my 40-plus years of gardening through the bulbs I have loved and lost, and the ones who never fail to come back.
When I first began gardening, I knew so little that I am not sure I was really gardening.
My initial experience with spring-blooming bulbs was through purchases made from my mother’s organization, which used bulb sales as a fundraiser.
My favorite was a tulip called Pride of Columbia (I was born in South Carolina). Although tulips are considered an annual in Alabama, those bright red beauties came back for years.
Two years ago, one lone red tulip was hanging on — the spirit of my mother telling me I was a gardener after all.
One year, she and I planted dozens of daffodils with a hand spade. I believe they were King Alfred (which is no longer offered on the bulb market). Planting these amazing trumpet daffodils made the huge blister on my palm worth it.
Daffodils (the common name for the genus Narcissus) are available in a wonderful array of colors (even one with a pink trumpet), trumpet sizes and shapes, heights (some as tall as 18 inches, others 8 inches), and various bloom times (early- to mid- to late season).
My personal preference is a mid- to late season bloom time (to protect the stems from a hard cold snap) and a shorter stem (which tends not to lean over as easily).
One year, I became intrigued with miniature daffodils (they fit in anywhere). They are so dear, but do not make the same kind of show as a bed of daffodils with large trumpets.
Up close, a miniature daffodil is one of the most delightful blooms in a spring garden. Every yard needs at least one bed of 50 baby daffodils!
Another great positive about daffodils is that they are deer- and squirrel- and chipmunk-proof. Give me a thousand of anything the deer and the squirrels won’t destroy.
There are a few things that are important to remember when planting daffodils:
• Daffodils are not picky, but they prefer good, well-drained soil and a minimum of six hours of direct sun. Many gardeners plant under the shade of deciduous trees, allowing daffodils exposure to the sun when the limbs are bare. That method has not worked for me; I end up with lots of stems and few flowers.
• For years, the experts recommended bonemeal as the fertilizer of choice, but now the recommendation is to use a fertilizer that includes nitrogen, adding the fertilizer to the soil at the time of planting.
• Daffodils must be planted according to the size of the bulbs. The Southern Living Garden Book suggests 2 to 3 times as deep as the bulb itself is tall, meaning that large bulbs need to go in at least 5 to 6 inches deep. A hand spade is not the tool for this garden task (see above). There are special tools made just for bulb planting. Invest in one. You will not be sorry.
• Splurge on daffodils! The larger the bulb, the bigger the flowers, and the more flowers per stem. Bulbs should be firm. Inspect bulbs carefully and discard any that have signs of disease. (This advice applies to any bulb purchase.)
• Remove spent flowers to prevent seed pods from forming.
• Never cut, braid, or bend the leaves on daffodils. Those leaves provide the energy for next year’s flowers. Let them yellow naturally, discarding them when they have completely withered.
• Plant bulbs after the soil has cooled and we have had the first frost. If they are planted earlier, they will start to sprout way too soon. Bulbs will normally begin to sprout in late January or February. Be careful not to crush those leaf tips as they emerge from the ground.
Tulips are positively enchanting. Planted in a large sweep, they are an attention grabber. Double or single, ruffled or plain edges, multicolored or single shade, there is one for every gardener to cherish.
Tulips are not as tough as daffodils, especially in our part of Alabama. Tulips need a long chilling period, and our winters often do not provide that. It is best to know from the get-go that tulips will be annuals rather than perennials. Pre-chilling them in the refrigerator may give them that needed cold, but will certainly turn them into annuals.
Not only do humans love tulips, but so do squirrels and chipmunks, which will dig them up furiously and devour them. Two years ago, I planted tulips in a whiskey barrel and covered them with wire. They were beautiful one year and that was it.
Darwin tulips are great for our climate zone; the tulips I purchased from my mother were Darwin.
Some varieties of tulips seem more prone to disease, making a little pre-purchase research very helpful.
If you are planting tulips as annuals and know it, plant any that catch your fancy. Just be aware that they may not return.
• Tulips must have sun while they are in bloom. As long as trees do not leaf out until the tulip leaves have dried up, the shade of deciduous trees may work. Afternoon shade during the hottest months is appreciated.
• Tulips prefer good, well-drained soil.
• Plant tulip bulbs three times as deep as they are wide. Put them in the ground after the weather has cooled, and prepare to be on squirrel watch. Some gardeners plant their bulbs in small wire cages, but nothing seems to stop a determined squirrel.
One year I developed a passion for hyacinths. Their fragrant spikes of flowers, about 10 inches tall, were eye-catching. Planted en masse or sprinkled around the garden, their intense colors add a special touch, not to mention a heavenly scent.
However, hyacinths did not perform as well for me as I hoped, so that preoccupation was more short-lived than my love affair with daffodils.
However, I just read they do well in containers; I will try some in a large container.
• Hyacinths are early-blooming bulbs and need full sun to bloom.
• Larger hyacinths need to be planted about 5 inches deep. Smaller bulbs can be planted less deeply.
• These are not deer- or squirrel-proof.
Although grape hyacinths resemble the larger Dutch hyacinth, they are not officially a hyacinth but a member of the Muscari family. They are one of the few bulbs that can sport intense blue flowers. I became enamored of the flowers on these dainty bulbs and planted them all over the yard years ago. Occasionally one returns, making me wish I had many more.
To me, a garden without a crocus is not really a garden. Only the crocuses can signal that spring is not far away.
I have planted hundreds of them, only to have them become victims of the squirrels and the chipmunks.
Finding a crocus poking up through the pine straw never fails to fill me with joy. Although I acknowledge the reality that not many will survive, I will continue to plant them.
Crocus bulbs are so small that planting them just requires digging a hole about 2 or 3 inches deep. They do best in good soil with full sun.
What I especially like about crocus is that sometimes they pop up where I do not remember planting them.
This year I purchased tommies (Crocus tommasinianus). They look almost identical to crocuses but are “supposed” to be a little less of an attraction to squirrels. Tommies will be my experiment for this year.
Many years ago, I ran across a later-blooming bulb called an allium. It was gorgeous; the description said it was related to the onion and would be somewhat resistant to hungry squirrels.
After I planted the bulb (they were packaged one to a bag), it slipped my mind, only to have it come up years later. It was as beautiful as its description had promised.
This past spring it came up again; a late cold snap crippled the stem and it collapsed.
An allium needs good soil and full sun to prosper.
Perhaps I should add this unusual bulb to a second shopping list for this year. As I write this, I have a catalog opened to pages of double daffodils. Hope they are not sold out yet.
Sherry Blanton is a member of the Calhoun County Master Gardeners Association. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.