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SEPTEMBER 29, 1997

Home & Garden

Glorious spring bulbs for planting now

  by Mary Robson
   Do you remember The Secret Garden? The garden in the beloved children's book revealed its presence by sending up small green shoots, even in the midst of weedy neglect. When Frances Burnett wrote this, she called these bulbs "things as helps themselves." Those snowdrops, crocus, daffodils, and lilies had "naturalized," spread out underground and expanded to return year after year with more and more flowers.
   Right now it's time to select and purchase bulbs for early spring bloom. Nurseries and garden centers have ample supplies of tantalizing variety and color in hardy bulbs. A hardy bulb is planted in fall and starts growing roots. Growth goes on all winter, and blooms pop forth in early spring. How could we imagine spring without these bulbs?
   To get the best results from bulbs, plant them in good conditions. Most hardy bulbs need ample sun, good drainage, and fertile soil. Soggy clay soils or the darkness under heavy low conifer branches won't work as locations for most bulbs. If the garden has a persistently boggy spot, try the summer-bloomers, camassia, Japanese iris, calla lilies.
   Winter weather in the maritime Pacific Northwest send us moderate to cold temperatures. Our winters can range from mild and rainy to icy, but are always wet. Be sure to plant bulbs where rains will drain through and water doesn't puddle. And remember that the smaller the bulbs or corms, the larger the number that should be planted to make a significant clump in the garden. Start with a dozen or so and work up!
   Which spring-blooming bulbs persist best, year after year, in the maritime Pacific Northwest? The garden season opens with snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, short single white flowers with solitary, dropping blooms. Many are marked with chartreuse tracing on the three inner petals. These will tolerate some shade if they get sunlight for a few hours a day. Snowdrops often emerge in late January and bloom intermittently through frosty February days. Plantings of these are wonderful along the edges of walks where their dainty beauty can be enjoyed close-up.
   Snowdrops will naturalize well, and the presence of snowdrops in an old garden marks the past efforts of a thoughtful gardener. Once the snowdrops have bloomed, the best time to divide clumps is "in the green," lifting and moving them immediately after bloom (the opposite advice to what's needed for most bulbs.)
   Crocus, perhaps the most recognized early spring bloomers, crave sun just as Northwesterners do in February and March. Patches of crocus will multiply and last for years in sunny, well-drained spots. Look for the early snow-crocus, Crocus chrysanthus small flowers in white, yellow, and soft blue with cultivar names like "Blue Pearl," "Cream Beauty," and "Gypsy Girl." The later, larger hybrid crocus may have blooms up to 4 inches in height and strong, clear colors. "Yellow Mammouth" lives up to its name; "Peter Pan" is a clear white. Plant a crocus in the shade and watch it disappear. Another way they disappear is by the predations of Eastern gray squirrels who seem to view crocus as humans look at chocolate truffles. A layer of hardware cloth about 1 inch under the soil level, laid in when planting, helps to discourage squirrels. Some determined gardeners construct hardware cloth cages and sink the whole crocus planting in the cage, much as a diver might enter a cage when going into shark-infested waters. All this protection is rewarded by striking cheerful flowers that seem to say "spring is here."
   Narcissus, the genus name for the quintessential spring flower we also call daffodils or jonquils, persists well in gardens if properly sited. Thousands of yellow, white, peach, and even pink variations on narcissus have been hybridized.
   You'll find multiple choices in height and bloom time. Very early-blooming small narcissus, some of them valuable for light shade such as under deciduous trees, also persist well in gardens especially if given well-drained spots. Narcissus "Tete-a-Tete," with two flowers per stem, and N. "February Gold" and "February Silver" bloom soon after snowdrops. These flowers, under 8 inches tall, fit well into rockeries and form clumps that return well.
   Larger narcissus need sunny spots but do come back; try tall white "Mount Hood," bi-color "Ice Follies," or solid sun-yellow "Carlton." Narcissus "Quail" in yellow, and "Thalia" pure white, have multiple flowers, three to a stem. "Thalia" is often referred to as "poor-man's orchids," and is an elegant garden flower. All narcissus bulbs have the delightful characteristic of being non-edible, slightly toxic and consequently not often dug up or chewed by squirrels.
   Scilla, graceful blue spires of bell-like flowers, persists and multiplies marvelously in the Northwest. The common scilla, a simple flower with the lengthy botanical name of Hyacinthoides hispanica, is usually blue but can be found in hybrids of white or pink. Its relative, H. non-scripta, fills open woodlands in England with masses of spring azure. The marble-shaped bulbs can multiply so quickly that some people consider them a weed; however they fulfill the exact requirements of bulbs for naturalizing: they return in force year after year. They'll bloom in mid-spring in shade under trees. This is a wonderful bulb to choose for planting on the edges of woods.
   One more candidate for light shade or woods shade is the scented Muscari armeniacum. Like the many scillas, blue and purple grape hyacinths can move into the garden to stay. The flowers resemble stacked grapes, precise and handsome.
   Many other bulbs persist well--try chionodoxa--tiny light blue "glory-of-the-snow" dwarf bulbous iris, oxalis, or species tulips such as Tulip tarda. Species tulips, for best results, need full sun and no summer water, persisting best if planted on a southwestern slope to bake through summer. Hybrid tulips look stunning for about two years and then "run out" or disappear. Be sure to allow all the foliage of bulbs to die down naturally after bloom in order to build strength for next year's show.