I love bulbs. They're like little surprise packages huddled beneath the soil until they pop up to delight everyone with the beauty of what's inside.
"They're a wonderful way to get color in the fall garden," notes Marci Brown, proprietor of Outside Insights, a perennial garden design firm in Kent County. "In fall, people tend to put in mums, but autumn-blooming crocus, colchicums and lycoris give you another plant material. Mums don't come back strongly year after year, but these bulbs multiply and offer that wonderful color surprise."
Though we often refer to them generically as "bulbs," most autumn bulbs are actually corms and rhizomes. While a bulb houses all future roots, stems, leaves and flowers, a corm is a modified stem filled with food-storage tissue. Unlike a bulb, it disappears after it blooms, then new ones form for the following year. A rhizome is a thick food-storage stem (think iris) that grows by the soil surface with roots extending along its length.
The main thing is to pay close attention to recommended planting depths since rhizomes often will not bloom if planted too deep. The beauty of most bulbs is that you can set them and forget them. Crocus, for example, are virtually trouble-free. And both spring and fall-blooming varieties offer renewal, a welcome dash of new color.
Paula Rausch, proprietor of Designs in Green, a landscaping firm in Chestertown, puts some of the small fall-blooming bulbs in pots. "They're so under- stated," she notes. "You can move them around to be able to see them better."
Brown plants autumn crocus close to foot traffic -- near the edge of the garage, by a kitchen door or walkway.
"Like the spring-blooming ones, you put them close to your house so you can notice them," she says. "Now, you're bringing color back to that same place in fall. It almost brings you round full circle."
Saffron crocus, a beautiful lavender flower with dark purple striations, has all the benefits of the others -- plus, it loves hot, dry summers.
"You have to plant them where they won't get too much water," notes Wanda Sorrells, senior horticulturist at Park Seed in Greenwood, S.C.
But unlike the others, saffron crocus offers a wonderful bonus. Its thick, red-orange stamen is the source of saffron, the exorbitantly expensive seasoning that adds that special something to bouillabaisse and saffron rice.
"I just pinch off the stamen, bring them into the house and dry them for a few days on paper towels," says Sorrells. "Then you store them in an air-tight glass container away from heat and light."
A close cousin to the fall-blooming crocus is the Sternbergia, whose bright yellow blooms explode from a little thicket of dark green foliage.
"I like Sternbergia lutea with Caryopteris," notes Brown, who, as a designer is attuned to plant combinations. "That nice yellow bloom is wonderful at the feet of the silver gray foliage of the Caryopteris."
Colchicum, another low-growing autumn-blooming corm, can be used in much the same way as crocus, though its blooming habit is more dramatic. Early in the season, it sends up foliage that dies back by September. Then, masses of lush, star-burst blossoms explode out of the ground in colors ranging from white to hot pink, to pale mauve, creating an eye-catching show along fading borders or beneath tall, ethereal-looking Perofskia. Unfortunately, colchicum are more finicky than autumn crocus.
"We stop shipping them by about Sept. 15," says Sorrells. "Though they're hardy, they won't hold unplanted over winter. You plant them now and they bloom practically right away."
Rausch notes that colchicums are poisonous.
Lycoris, a spectacular autumn bloomer, is also known as Naked Ladies or Resurrection Lily because, like colchicum, its blooms rise from foliage that died in early July. While some lycoris are not hardy here, Lycoris squamigera, whose conch-shell pink angel trumpets wave above the garden on sturdy three-to-four stalks, thrives.
Dahlias, hardy cyclamen and cannas are three more good fall choices. Cannas, 4 to 5 feet tall, whose bold colors and enormous, Little-Shop-of-Horrors leaves are visible even from a speeding car, multiply well and, with a few exceptions, are hardy. Low-growing hardy cyclamen thrive in dry shade. Dahlia makes a beautiful and enduring autumn show.
"I like dinner plant dahlias," says Rausch. "They come in every color and will bloom until frost."
Dahlias, while beautiful, are a commitment. They need to be dug up and protected in winter, then replanted in spring.
"As soon as the foliage turns black, dig them and put them in the basement in a basket with peat moss," Rausch advises. "If it's a wet basement, put a little Bordeaux and copper mix on them to keep them from mildewing."
* Saffron crocus and autumn-blooming crocus can be planted this fall. While saffron crocus will only produce foliage the first year, the fall crocus will bloom within a few weeks of planting.
* Lycoris can be planted now or in early spring, but rarely blooms the first year.
* Hardy cyclamen need to go in by mid- September.
* Dahlias and cannas go in during spring.
* Park Seed Co., 1 Parkton Ave.,
Greenwood, S.C. 29647-0001
* J.W. Jung Seed Co., 335 S. High St.,
Randolph, Wis. 53957-0001
* Nichols Garden Nursery
1190 North Pacific Highway,
Albany, Ore. 97321-4580