Beverley Nichols, born 1898, was a reporter and author, in a variety of genres, in post WWII, mid-century Britain. He was something of a celebrity at the time and would probably be surprised to hear that it is his books on gardening that have survived the vagaries of taste and time. His second book Merry Hall has been recently reissued by Timber Press. It is the story of his purchase of an old house by that name. What seals the deal on a place that ‘needs a lot of work ‘is his encounter, during his tour, with a massive display of white Regale lilies, located near a kitchen garden and greenhouse, out of which steps a weathered gardener named Oldfield, with whom Mr. Nichols has this exchange:
‘That’s a wonderful lot of Regales you’ve got there.’
‘Aye” he said. ‘They’re pretty good.’
‘Have they been established for long?’
‘Thirty year or so.’
‘Where did you get the bulbs?’
‘Boolbs? A snort. ‘Boolbs?” I didn’t get boolbs. I grew them from a handful of seed.’
‘Does that take long?’
‘Three year. Of course, garden book says seven. But I don’t allus hold wi’ garden books.’
Anglophiles and those who like to wander, as I do, in other times and places, will enjoy the book, though one must accept it in its time, forgiving the author his misogynistic humor – we were all misogynists then – in exchange for amusement and charm.
Which brings me to my topic – spring bulbs. NOW is the time to plan for and order them. They will arrive in October and should be planted by the end of November. Indeed, we are spared the work of bringing them along from seed like Mr. Oldfield. Each bulb is a tiny package with a complete plant inside, bloom and all. We have only to get them in the ground where they revel in the cool soil temperatures and take their time growing roots.
Those of you who are Snowbirds may want to pass on now to other reading, as you will be in Arizona when the rest of us are enjoying snowdrops, crocus, anemones, fritillaria, and narcissus among our hellebores. Although, you may be back in time for tulips, alliums and summer lilies.
Spare yourself and your wallet by not buying from the mass mailing catalogs or, worse yet, the bins at Costco or even local garden stores. They satisfy our impulses with handiness and pretty pictures but the bulbs will have been harvested before their time, not held in cold storage, and will be disappointing, which you will think is your fault for not being a better gardener. Call for your catalogs now and pour over them absorbing knowledge and visual delight. The following are my personal favorites:
John Scheepers 2021 (860) 567-0838
All of the above have high quality bulbs and are reliable vendors. Their catalogs are an education and feature lots of information on timing of bloom, planting and go-withs.
First you must choose between two styles of planting, either the showstopper or the naturalistic; bulbs lend themselves to either. The showstoppers are the specialty of public gardens and institutions and a few big -hearted neighbors who fill an entire bed or planter with two or three hundred tulips, daffodils or hyacinths. Or, on a smaller scale, 25 tulips in one big pot on their porch. Colorblends even offers a tulip mix called ‘Stop the Car”. Indeed, this company specializes in blends that they have worked out to bloom together in a creative array from the subtle to the circus.
A note on limitations: tulips do not rebloom at the same level of glory, your planting of a hundred may return only ten or fifteen flowers in year two. Here you must think of what you might spend on cut flowers from the florist or even Safeway and blow forty or ninety dollars on several weeks of glory and the gratitude of all who drive by, just as they do for Christmas lights. Then dig them up, throw them out and plan for next year.
Daffodils do come back faithfully but to attain this you must, as with all bulbs, let the foliage ripen to feed the bulb for next year. This means seven or eight weeks of green stalks gradually browning off and finally flopping. Here is where we turn to naturalistic planting and site the daffs behind big perennials, ferns or deciduous shrubs that will cover and distract from their decline.
Also, we turn to the so-called minor bulbs, the little sweeties that can be sited all over your garden to bloom early and encourage your hopes for sun and the turn of season. There are both sun and shade prone choices here. First, snowdrops, named for their willingness to poke through melting remnants of winter and willing to bloom here, in the PNW, as early as January. They like a little shade as do the Frittilaria, best known for the little checkered bells of Fritillaria meleagaris but available in wide variety. Preferring some sun are the Crocus and the Anemone blandas. I like the smaller, earlier Species crocus or snowcrocus, better than the larger, later Dutch Hybrids which are likely to be beaten down by wind and rain. Sadly, in my garden here, all the crocus I have ever planted have become winter sustenance for mice or voles who use the corridors created by the carnivorous moles to reach the morsels.
Anemone blandas come as little corms, looking like pieces of bark, and accommodatingly orient themselves in the soil as to root and stem. They flower in two-inch daisy-form blooms in shades of lavender blue and white. There is also a pink form but I have never seen it naturalize as the blue and whites do and, best of all, it has a nice delicate little leaf, rather fern-like, that simply disappears after the plants have self-seeded.
There are also tiny iris, squills, grape hyacinths and others in this group of harbingers. Most important, I think is to plant them in clumps where you will actually see them in your late-winter comings and goings from the car to the house, or under a window you pass often. No point in putting them out on the north forty to bloom their little hearts out unappreciated.
Last, we now also order the bulbs which will bloom in late spring and even summer. First the Alliums, or ornamental onions, which come up on single stalks short or tall and produce polka dots of blue or maroon or white bobbing among the perennials and shrubs. These polka dots are usually spheres ranging in diameter from an inch or two to the big blues, six inches across, to the weird and wonderful A.schubertii which has varying length rays making up the size of a basketball, looking like sputnik. The alliums have a very long bloom time ranging from May to July, each described in its catalog bio.
Likewise, one can have lilies from June through August from three or four to six feet tall and in most any color but blue. The Asiatic Hybrids bloom first, in June-July and are the ones we often see potted in the grocery store. Next are the Trumpet and Orienpets which stretch up taller than your head and bloom a little later. These are the showgirls of summer with dresses the colors of costumes and long, pollen-covered eyelashes.
So, now’s the time. Get your catalogs, work out your orders, be shocked at how much you have spent, reduce the order and groan when the big box is delivered to your door in October and you realize you must put yourself back in planting mode – it will all be worth it when the bit players, the chorus-girls and the divas assemble themselves for the Show.