18 October 2007

The ritual of bulbs

It was one of those perfect autumn days here in beautiful upper Scotts Bay, Nova Scotia. The wind wasn't blowing excessively and the sun was warm, and it seemed like a good time to go outside and putter in the garden a bit. My puttering included cutting off stalks of some perennials and spent annuals, pulling some weeds, planting my Blue Nootka false cypress, and getting ready to plant bulbs.

I'm not quite as hard-core a bulb-buyer as some of my blogging comrades, but usually I end up putting in a couple of hundred bulbs of various species and varieties. They are, after all, a true blessing when they start to emerge in spring. We're just about at the end of our tethers, having dealt with snow or rain and other nasties, cold weather, dreary weather, short days and long nights, defrosting cars, icy roads, no flowering things outdoors...and then suddenly, one day we look out and there's a crocus or a snowdrop or an aconite popping up. And suddenly, we realize that we're going to make it through the winter after all.

Because we have some drainage issues in much of the garden, I haven't had any success in the past with winter aconite. Thus the first bulbs to come calling in our garden are the graceful, cheery snowdrops. Maybe they aren't all that colourful, being snow-white with those little chevrons of green. But they're alive and flourishing and so welcome; and seeing them, I know that others will follow.

Snowdrops are slow to multiply in our gardens, perhaps because I've inadvertantly dug them up by accident. The doubles are doing well, though they were a bit overwhelmed by having a big dump of snow land on them this spring just after they got up and started blooming in earnest. I'm told they're fragrant, but I never pick them and never get my nose down that close to the ground to check this for sure.
In the book Dear Friend and Gardener, letters written between Beth Chatto and Christopher Lloyd, our two correspondents are regularly waxing eloquent about various species and cultivars of snowdrops. When I first read this book I was surprised at the varieties they talked about, because here, I think we can get two types: single and double. But in England, and perhaps elsewhere, there are many more choices. There was an article this spring, I think in Horticulture magazine, about snowdrops, and I did appreciate some of the subtle differences. That's one of the things I like about snowdrops, their subtle and graceful nature.

These little beauties are well named, being called Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa). We need to plant more of them because they are only along the southern side of the house, and I love their china blue flowers facing skyward. I have some of the pink cultivar as well, and while they're pleasant, they don't do it for me like the true-blues do. Over a period of time, they have colonized and are making a nice wash of colour, but I don't often see them at local nurseries, and since I haven't ordered bulbs by mail for some years, I have to take what I can get locally.

I refer to these sorts of bulbs as 'small wonders.' They aren't huge or flashy, but rather quiet punctuations of colour nestled close to the ground. They're easy to put in using a dibber, of which I have several models. One I particularly like handmade, turned hardwood that was beautifully sanded and polished, then stained and varnished. It's almost too lovely to use in the garden, but it has been used as a model in various photographs. Another is wooden with a steel tip, ideal for poking through grass so that we'll have a flurry of flowers in the lawn before it greens. But if you do naturalize with bulbs in your lawn, remember you have to avoid mowing the grass for a few weeks after the bulbs are past, to allow the foliage time to ripen, which creates food for next year's blooms.

Whether you call these scilla or squill, they are great for satisfying that craving for blue flowers that so many of us have. Where the glory-of-the-snow turn their faces to the sun, scilla are more shy, with nodding flowers in a deeper shade of blue, I'd call it gentian, myself. These also naturalize, and you often see them planted together with various yellow daffodils or narcissus, which makes a nice contrast.

One of my favourite springflowering bulbs is the checkered fritillary, also sometimes called snakeshead lily (Fritillaria meleagris). These have always delighted me because of the unique checkered pattern in their flowers, (except in the white ones which are just plain snowy white but also delightful. I have to call them checkered rather than snakeshead as my longsuffering spouse has an intense dislike of snakes and doesn't even like to hear a plant called by that description. Besides, they're far too pretty to be named after a reptile (even though *I* like snakes just fine!)

This photo was taken at a friend's garden, as I only planted Crown Imperial Fritillaria once; it flowered the first year but didn't return, and I haven't gotten around to finding a better place for it. But I so love the rich green foliage and those brilliant scarlet-orange flowers, so this tells me I have to smarten up and try planting a few of them in the area that's being turned into a rock garden--it has the best drainage, and also gets good sun but shelter. Now of course, can I find bulbs this late in the game, that's the next question?

Do you plant alliums? I find they're very much underutilized, and that's a great pity because they're so expressively unique, with a whole range of flower colours from green to purple to pure white to true blue. I'm putting in a pile of Allium cristophii (Star of Persia) as well as additional Sicilian honeybells (Nectaroscordum siculum) and some giant purple alliums, and whatever else I find when I go back to the nursery for more bulbs.

Leocojum, or snowflake, come in several types; this is the late-spring flowering variety, and I like them as much as I do snowdrops, perhaps because they do remind me of snowdrops but are much larger and come at a different time. More are going in this fall because I only planted a few maybe three or four years ago, and I think several have been lost by overzealous gardeners mistaking them for grass. It happens, sometimes. I've done that with alliums in the past too. Oh well, to garden is to err, and to err is to be human...isn't that how the saying goes?

Now we're going from the subtle spring stalwarts to the brash, brilliant and jubilation-inducing colours of the tulips. For the most part, I treat tulips as annuals, adding new ones each fall. Triumph and Darwin tulips will come back for me, and sometimes the Fosterianas will too, but others tend to dwindle away rather quickly. Species tulips also do just fine for me, providing I remember where they're planted and don't go trying to put something new in the same spot. We have a nice large clump of T. tarda, but also some T. batalini and other species, and this little darling, T. hageri 'Little Beauty.' And isn't it a beauty?

Fringed tulips are delightfully different, and I plan to repeat planting them, preferably in a rich colour like this. I'm not a fan of yellow, white or other pastel tulips, at least not in our garden--I like them fine in other places, and for sure they're marvelous planted out in huge drifts like they do in Ottawa during the tulip festival in May. That festival, very well known in Canada as well as other parts of the world, celebrates the long friendship between the Netherlands and Canada. During WWII, several members of the Dutch Royal family took shelter in Canada for several years. Princess Juliana gave birth to a daughter while in Ottawa, and the maternity ward in the hospital was temporarily declared Dutch territory so that the child could be said to have been born in Dutch territory. After the war was over, the government of the Netherlands sent 100,000 tulips to Ottawa as a gesture of appreciation, and that was the start of the yearly tulip festival. What a great way to celebrate a friendship between two countries. I think of that every time I put a tulip in the ground.

This is Carnival of Nice, a nice enough tulip, although I often see it planted with Monsella, a red-and-yellow double which doesn't do it for me. I like Carnival, but putting it with Monsella wouldn't be my prime choice for colour combinations, because I see too many gardens with red and yellow tulips lined up like little soldiers, and that's one of those gardening peeves that might work for some but isn't going to happen in our garden. However, this on its own is very striking, and would also work nicely with a deep wine or red or pure white tulip. Or whatever else makes you happy, right?

Now, THIS is my idea of a perfectly exciting, jubilant, exquisite tulip. It's Apricot parrot, and I first saw it at Ouestville Perennials several years ago. It was love at first sight, too. Last year I put in a dozen of these glorious bulbs, and they put on a marvelous show this spring. I especially like how the apricot colour changes to a rose as the flower ages, and the petals look like the dress of a flamenco dancer. Absolutely perfect.

What am I putting in for tulips this year? The elegant green-on-green viridiflora, Deirdre; Uncle Tom, a double late tulip that is among the darkest-wine out there; Roccoco, a parrot tulip in deep rich red with greens; Greenland, another viridiflora, this one hot fuschia pink and green; and Orange Emperor, a brilliant rich Fosteriana that we have had before (and which have finally dwindled out after about five years. Now...these are the bulbs I have on hand at this time; what I'll come home with after the weekend, it's hard to say, but stay tuned for more details.


  1. Dear Jodi,
    This post makes me remember how wonderful it will be in the spring. At this season I usually neglect the fact that winter is coming and every year I hope it will come late and stay short. Your bulb post made me remember that I still have some tulips and hyacinths to plant. I always forget it when I am working in the garden... cos I am very busy this autumn with correcting mistakes... as my garden is young and I am still learning - it was very comforting to be reminded that errare humanum est.
    If it stops raining today finally... I will do it today.
    Your cats cohort is very sweet. I loved also pictures of hummingbirds. We do not have them here.
    greetings from Poland,

  2. I do plant alliums...every year I'm looking for other sorts. I love them. They give height to a Spring flowerbeed and are still nice to look at when they are faded! You are very busy planting bulbs. I haven't done much so far....all the bulbs are waiting outside...I bought them some weeks ago. I'm always early in buying them, but late in planting ;-) !! For tomorrow weatherforcast predicts snowfall....
    I hope you can still enjoy some golden, warm and sunny October days. Have a happy weekend!

  3. I had to laugh when I read you weren't hard core about bulbs, you only manage to put in a couple of hundred bulbs in the fall. Me, too! But non-gardeners just think that is an enormous number of bulbs. Little do they know... it's just a good start.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

  4. You need to get a whiff of those snowdrops. I always cut at least 1 & make everyone smell it. They really are honey-scented, sort of like sweet alyssum, only stronger. I wish I could grow those gorgeous tulips, but between the rabbits, the squirrels & the deer, I have to spray the growing tulips almost every day to keep them from getting mown down.

  5. I'm an absolute fan of parrot tulips, altough they do not grow well here (too much wind) and I like snowdrops too. I remember watching the beds in my father's garden for the first snowdrops.
    Thanks for sharing!

  6. Carol,
    I am a beginner in gardening, as I do it since 2004. When in the first year I planted over 200, I thought it is hard core :) I understand I need to learn :)

  7. Well, you've helped me identify a photo that I've had for years but not known what gorgeous flower it is of--the checkered fritillary! I think I'll have to hunt this down and put it in. Your post makes me want to go out and plant bulbs but if I do I'll end up with blooms at Christmas instead of spring (last year my naturalized daffodils bloomed on Dec. 26th). I have to wait until January to get the spring show. Sigh... Cindy at Rosehaven Cottage

  8. Jodi, I have 'Deirdre' and the same chionodoxa. The chionodoxa is my absolute favorite. This past spring, we were in Florida when it started blooming and when we got home, it was on its way out. I hated missing a single day of that! The color and form is just PERFECT, in my book.

    I must get some checkered fritillaries. I must get some BULBS, period. I've been so lazy about it this fall!

  9. Hi all and welcome to the windblown garden of bloomingwriter...be careful with your umbrellas as it's raining AND windy here.

    Ewa, greetings from Canada. Your garden looks lovely and you shouldn't worry about mistakes, because in gardening, there are no mistakes--only experiments. That's the joy of it.

    Barbara, some more bulbs followed me home today, but I won't get to post further until sometime Sunday, when I'll 'tell all' about the new additions. And I even managed to plant a couple of dozen this afternoon before the rain. No snow for a while yet, here.

    Carol, I'd love to put in MORE bulbs...but every autumn I sort of forget where SOME of them are planted, and then I think in spring when I see spots that could have been planted, "oh, i"ll do that this fall..."

    MMD, maybe, MAYBE I have smelled the snowdrops before. There have been days in spring when I've been out in the garden doing cleanup, and caught this sweet smell, and couldn't figure out where it was coming from...and it was probably those tiny snowdrops, scarcely 2 inches out of the ground, right? I bought more today, so there will be 3 dozen new ones going in the ground.

    Verobirdie, I think it would be fun to do an all-parrot planting sometime, because those colours are just amazing.

    Cindy, when you look for checkered frits, make sure the little bulbs aren't too dry--I find they get spongy in nurseries if they sit for too long, and then they don't grow well. Daffs at Christmas, that would be fun...but I've been known to be planting bulbs at Christmas, not having them bloom.

    Kylee, glad to find a fellow chionodoxa fan...They are just so lovely, with their faces reaching sunward. I don't beleive for a minute that you've been lazy this fall--busy, yes, lazy, never.

  10. A couple hundred bulbs IS hard-core, Jodi! You are so funny. I think I planted 24 bulbs last fall, and too lazy to plant anymore this year. But, oh, I want those fritillarias. I'd refer to them as "checkered" also, wouldn't want to confuse my many real snakes!

  11. Alright, between you and Kylee you've convinced me that I need some chionodoxa! Those blue flowers are cute, and would look lovely underneath my dark wine colored tulips. (Assuming they come back this year, who knows.)

  12. hey jodi! i've been trying to find time to comment on your bulb post. they are all so beautiful! I bought my first bulbs a couple of weeks ago at a big box store but I'm so dreading planting them! I was very clost to not planting them but I knew I'd regret it come spring if I didnt. I'm going to a bulb sale tomorrow and I'll definately try to pick up a couple that I've seen here on your blog

  13. wow - well I'm a non-gardener and very impressed! I just love the pictures.

  14. Excellent post Jodi, very informative. If people are not inspired now to go out and buy zillions of bulbs, I don't know what else will make them do so. ;-)

    Yes, there a many many different kinds of snowdrops. There are several books written about snowdrops only. Dear friends of mine are Galanthophiles and they have snowdrops in flower from October until May.

    How wonderful that the tulip festival is still held today!

  15. Lost Roses, five minutes will give you those frits...just poke a dibble or other tool into the ground, drop the frit corms in and next spring, voila!

    Kim, glad to have you join the chionodoxa fans. You're right, they'd look yummy with dark tulips.

    Gina I know you've bought some bulbs since I last had a chance to answer these comments, so good for you.

    DrowseyMonkey, welcome, glad you enjoy the pictures, come back any time.

    Yolanda Elizabet, snowdrops for six months...I am so envious, because I love them so for their graceful little selves. And yes, long live the friendship between our countries (and our blogs)

  16. ve you had any luck with growing Allium from seed? I collected my seeds this year for the first time and am going to give it a shot and was hoping for advice - if you have done it. I live just south of Paris, France, so the weather may not be the same.




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