Published Aug. 18, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bulb ideas—Colors. Bloom times. Location. There’s a lot to think about when it comes to spring-flowering bulbs. These suggestions may help.”
By Barb Gorges
Remember your first sighting of blooming flowers last March?
Maybe it was crocuses pushing through snow. Or later, you spied your first daffodil, and then there was a flurry of tulips.
No matter how many more snowstorms we had, bulbs were the colorful optimists.
Did you say to yourself, “I want some in my yard”?
If so, August is the time to make your plans for spring-blooming bulbs. The catalogs have been coming in the mail since July, though the bulbs will be mailed at the appropriate time for planting, usually mid-October, before the ground freezes.
I’ve been succumbing to those full-color catalogs and store displays for more than 30 years, and I have learned a few things, but I also checked in with Laramie County master gardener Kathy Shreve and learned more.
Kathy is in charge of the Laramie County Master Gardeners’ bulb sale.
After struggling with Cheyenne’s gardening challenges, it’s a relief to know that we are actually well-suited to growing spring bulbs, many originating in Iran, Iraq and Mongolia, which have a similarly dry climate, Kathy said. Just about all the spring bloomers, with the exception of jonquils—more suited to warmer climates—do well here.
Before you fill your shopping basket, think about where you want bulbs. I never seem to do this and end up freezing while digging out more lawn to accommodate my new collection.
All of the bulbs do well in sunny locations, including those areas that won’t be shaded until the trees leaf out late spring.
Shady areas might do best with daffodils, snowdrops and squill, Kathy said.
If space is limited, consider planting different sized bulbs on top of each other. Since the big tulips and daffodils need to be planted the deepest, place them at the bottom of an appropriate-sized hole.
I usually dig one hole wide enough for a group of a dozen or more bulbs properly spaced—I prefer clumps to lines. Fill in with dirt until you reach the right depth for the next biggest bulb, perhaps a smaller tulip or hyacinth, and top off with a layer of the smallest bulbs: grape hyacinth, crocus, snow crocus, snow drops, squill (Scilla).
You also want to plant long-lived bulbs, that keep returning every season, where they can be left for many years. The Siberian squill I planted more than 20 years ago continues to spread and come up thicker every spring.
Kathy mentioned that small bulbs like these can be naturalized in your lawn, as long as you don’t get the urge to mow before they are finished.
You also need to think about what you want to grow over the bulbs in the garden for the rest of the growing season. A shallow-rooted or self-seeding annual works well because you won’t have to disturb the soil. It can cover the dying tulip and daffodil leaves before they can be removed, which is when they are completely yellow and finished feeding the bulbs.
The bulbs are dormant the rest of the year, but they do need some water. So pair them with summer flowers that also like it somewhat dry because bulbs will rot if it is too wet.
Bulbs can be expensive. Breck’s was advertising the “Ice Cream Tulip—A Tulip They Haven’t Seen!” at an undiscounted price of $22 for three bulbs. There are lots of fancy tulips: fringed, double petals, multi-colored etc. Kathy said, “They’re pretty but they’re like annuals. They don’t have the hardiness of their wild parents.”
The bulbs that keep coming back are the “species” tulips, the ones closest to wild–which bulb breeders have messed with the least. These are the Kaufmanniana and Greigii types. The Darwin Hybrids are also good. These are also less expensive because they are older varieties. Kathy said in Cheyenne they don’t require extensive soil preparation before planting.
My species tulips are plain red, but I planted a sack of a dozen bulbs a few years ago and this spring I had a mass of 40 blooms. Some of them were a little small and Kathy suggested I dig them all up and replant the smallest bulbs somewhere else while they mature.
Keep in mind: The bigger the bulb you buy, the bigger the flower. The same variety of tulip or daffodil can be sold in different sizes. The purveyors with the best reputations will tell you how big their bulbs are so you can compare.
Choosing color and bloom time
Getting a great blend of flower colors is not my forte. I tend to go for the polychromatic look—any color I can get to grow. Sometimes clashing shades of red bloom next to each other at the same time.
Kathy, on the other hand, works with color palettes. For the Master Gardeners’ sale this year, her selections are in the yellow to apricot family, with purple/blue accents provided by an allium and a hyacinth.
All bulb descriptions include an expected bloom time. What actual week any bulb begins blooming varies from year to year based on how quickly the soil begins warming, so it is all relative, but there is a progression, though a warm microclimate, like next to a south-facing brick wall, will speed it up.
First the small bulbs bloom: crocus, squill, snowdrops; then the medium-sized, hyacinth, and the species tulips, like Kaufmanniana and Greigii; finally the big tulips, like the Darwin Hybrids. Daffodils (also referred to as “Narcissus”) also come in a range of bloom times. You can have bulbs blooming from March through early June in Cheyenne.
Reputable bulb companies will make suggestions and even put together collections—as Kathy has for the sale. Just check that all the bulbs are suitable for our hardiness zone 5. I aim for colder zones though, 3 or 4.
“Don’t pick them if you want them to come back,” Kathy said.
This was the most surprising new information I learned. I like to bring in a few tulips to enjoy close up.
Apply fertilizer designed specifically for bulbs once in the spring as their leaves emerge and once in the fall. Kathy uses half the recommended rate.
If you have problems with critters digging up and eating your bulbs, try daffodils and allium, Kathy said. Animals don’t find them as edible.
And finally, the bulb companies have lots of advice. One even sent me a booklet with my order that I found helpful. You can also “Ask a Master Gardener” at the Saturday Farmers Market, now through Sept. 14.
Where to find spring bulbs
Bulbs are available at local garden centers in the fall.
Two catalogs I have ordered from are Breck’s and van Bourgondien; however, www.JohnScheepers.com, the company the Master Gardeners are ordering from, identifies all of its offerings by name (not just “large red tulip”) and is indexed. It is also developing extensive online bulb horticultural information. Call 1-860-567-0838 to request a print catalog.
More information about the Master Gardeners’ bulb sale being held now through Sept. 14 at the Saturday Farmers Market at the Cheyenne Depot Plaza is at www.LCMG.org. Bulb orders can also be made through the Laramie County Cooperative Extension office, 310 W. 19th St., Suite 100, 633-4383.
Photos provided by the paper included some of these bulb types:
Grape Hyacinth (Muscari)
Darwin Hybrid Tulip
Allium (ornamental—usually those big blue balls on three foot stems)