Bigger is NOT always better. That’s a lesson spring-flowering bulbs have been trying to teach me for years.
This time of year, gardeners get a lot of catalogs for daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and the like. It’s fun to fantasize about how those statuesque Dutch Master daffodils and luscious, lipstick-colored tulips will brighten the garden come spring.
But, there’s a catch. (Isn’t there always?) To feed the blooms for the following year, the equally statuesque foliage must remain on the plant as it withers to an unappealing tan. This prompts some gardeners to bundle or braid the foliage in a highly creative albeit labor-intensive effort to downplay the visual impact of all that withering foliage. Lazy gardeners like me simply harrumph discontentedly and wait for the emerging perennials to finally cover up the whole mess.
As usual, my garden mentor Roy Diblik, owner of Northwind Perennial Farm near Lake Geneva, rescued me from this dilemma. The solution, he says, is to plant smaller bulbs. Instead of the mighty Dutch Master or King Alfred dafs, pick smaller varieties like Tete a Tete, Jetfire, Little Gem or Hawera. Instead of towering tulips, try species tulips such as Tulipa Cretica, Linifolia or Turkestanica. They’ll provide that welcome pop of color in early spring and be more in scale with the emerging perennials. It won’t take as long, either, before the perennial foliage hides the withering bulbs.
If you want to expand your repertoire, try what are commonly called the “minor bulbs.” These include bulbs of smaller stature like grape hyacinth, scilla and glory-of-the-snow. Because the bulbs are small, you won’t have to dig as deep a hole as the bigger bulbs require. For minimal effort, you’ll be rewarded with a carpet of blue, white or pink come spring.
Thanks to Roy’s insights, I’ve learned that smaller bulbs can make a bigger impact in the garden … with less work. Unfortunately, Roy isn’t around when I’m ordering bulbs because there’s another lesson I seem unable to learn.
In August and September, the pictures in those catalogs look sooo appealing. If 10 species of tulips would look nice, why not get a second bag and make it 20 tulips? Wait a minute, there’s a bargain package of 50 bulbs. What a deal! And look at this new color of grape hyacinths! Better try some of those. If a small order is good, think how much better a bigger order will be, right?
Of course, the box of what is now 100 bulbs arrives during a spell of cold, wet November weather. The last thing I want to do is put plants in the ground. Much grumping and harrumphing ensues amidst reminders to myself to never, ever do this again.
But, of course, I will. Gardeners are hopelessly optimistic people. Even as I blow on my frigid fingers and swipe at my runny nose in the November chill, I already feel the thrill of seeing these first welcome signs of spring. Every gardener knows that is blitz.
Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living magazines.