Fall is the perfect season for the beginner gardener to get started. It's the traditional time to plant spring-blooming bulbs, which not only are very forgiving and easy to grow, but also provide welcome color during the early part of the year.
Bulbs are also reassuringly reliable, as most come back every year. This makes them the natural backbone of most spring gardens.
As an added plus, most bulbs are reasonably priced, except a few of the more exotic ones. Also, if you don't like the effect you produce the first spring, bulbs are easy to dig up and move about, or even pull out and discard if, say, the color combination turns out not to be what you had in mind.
Right now is prime time for finding spring-flowering bulbs in local garden centers and nurseries, so the selection should be excellent. These should be held in a cool place until planting time.
First, however, the rather confusing rule of thumb for planting bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers is: Spring-flowering bulbs get planted in the fall (October through the first half of November), and summer-flowering bulbs get planted in the spring.
What they require in the way of cultivation is quite easy. Don't plant them where it is too wet - daffodils especially dislike wet feet - and try to remember to mulch them with some pine-bark chips during the winter. Turn the soil over well and dig a little bone meal, about a tablespoon per bulb, and compost into the ground at planting time. This and a position in the sunshine will keep them happy for a long time.
Popular spring-flowering bulbs that do well in our area are snowdrops, Dutch crocus, daffodils and narcissus, jonquils, grape hyacinths and tulips. These make an attractive, cheerful show in spring.
The very earliest of these are snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis. As may be inferred from their name, these frequently bloom right through the snow. These and snow crocus often appear in early March in our area, especially if the gardener can find a sunny, sheltered corner for them.
Dutch crocus are the next to come out, with their plump, glossy blooms popping up in a bright range of colors: chrome yellow, purple, white, lavender and lavender and white stripes. If you are in the doldrums at the end of winter, there is very little that will put a smile back in your heart as quickly as these smiling up at you.
Crocus are actually corms, not bulbs. Several dozen can usually be purchased for less than $10, so there is no reason to short yourself on these first gifts of spring.
Daffodils, narcissus and jonquils flower from early April through mid-May, depending on variety. A note for the perplexed on nomenclature: all daffodils are narcissus, but not all narcissus are daffodils.
There are dozens of varieties to choose from. Local garden centers sell many different cultivars, and most include a label or color picture on the front of the bin.
Two particular classics are 'King Alfred' and 'Mrs. R. O. Backhouse.' 'Carlton' is another wonderful performer, as is the fragrant 'Quail.'
Bags of mixed varieties are also available in many stores and from catalogs.
A good technique for natural-looking plantings of any spring bulbs is to gently toss them up into the air over the area to be planted, and plant them where they fall, leaving about six inches between the bulbs. This will yield a random arrangement and avoid the regimented look often found when bulbs are planted in straight lines.
On tulips: Darwin tulips are long-lived perennials in the garden; Triumph tulips usually need to be replaced every year or so. A catalog that distinguishes between the two, such as White Flower Farm (800-503-9624), will save you much trial and error in finding long-lasting tulips suitable for naturalizing.
When your bulbs or corms have finished blooming for the season, the foliage should be left to "mature," so that the corm or bulb can store food for the next season of bloom as well as produce additional corms (and flowers).
All bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers require a period of maturation for their leaves. Generally this is about six weeks, but larger bulbs may take longer. The longer the foliage is allowed to ripen, the stronger and larger next year's flowers will probably be.
The general rule is to wait until the tops at least begin to turn yellow; then you can cut the leaves off if the appearance really bothers you. One way around this is to plant bulbs where the foliage of other flowers will grow up to hide the dying leaves, such as with iris or daylilies, or a good stand of other tallish perennials.
Usually you will notice after two or three years that your bulbs are getting a bit crowded and perhaps not flowering as freely as they used to. All bulbs need to be lifted and separated from time to time, to give the plants more room to grow again.
Dig them up gently during the autumn at their normal planting time and replant them, leaving about 6 inches between the bulbs and adding some more bone meal and compost to the soil. Small bulbs or corms may not flower the first year after replanting, but should bloom in subsequent years.
Pub Date: 10/11/98