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The Brightest Bulbs

The Baltimore Sun

Watching football, raking leaves, carving pumpkins and planting bulbs are activities generally associated with fall.

Spring is when those bulbs - daffodils and tulips - are supposed to reward that autumn investment with brilliant flowers.

Lost in our pent-up urge to plant perennials and annuals in the spring are the summer flowering bulbs that should go into the ground in May, too - dahlias, cannas, gladiolus, tuberoses and more.

Now is the time to order these bulbs so that they can reward you with flowers throughout the summer, until a killing frost.

"When everything else is winding down, the dahlias keep cranking up," said Scott Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Mich., which specializes in heirloom varieties of these bulbs.

"In the fall garden, when everything is slipping away, they relieve that melancholy feeling."

Dahlias are the showiest of the summer flowering bulbs, so much so that serious gardeners have long snubbed them because of their ostentation.

Some are head high, with blooms the size of dinner plates, and they long have been considered too big to be grown in a "normal" garden.

But it is their proliferation that makes them impossible to ignore.

"Spend $5 for a bulb and you will get 200 flowers," said Kunst. "They don't quit."

"Dahlias, dahlias, dahlias," said Deborah van Bourgondien, "The Bulb Lady" of and the van Bourgondien catalog. "I don't think you can have too many dahlias in your garden."

You would just have to find room. Cultivated by the Aztecs, they found their way to Spain, Western Europe and the Netherlands, where they were bred for the Dutch cut-flower industry. There are now more than 20,000 varieties.

Many of them are dwarf varieties that grow more to scale for the typical perennial garden. There are also cannas and glads that come in smaller, even pot-sized, varieties. Asiatic pixie lilies, caladiums, begonias and tuberoses are summer-flowering bulbs that are just the right size for border gardens.

"Historically, people avoided summer flowering bulbs because they were considered tender tropical plants," said Brent Heath of Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Virginia.

But these bulbs do just fine in the tropical temperatures on the Eastern seaboard from May to October, said Heath, who added that they represent the fastest growing segment of his bulb sales.

"It's not nearly as big as the fall bulbs, but it is increasing drastically each year.

"People are discovering that they can have fun layering them, kind of lasagna style, in annuals and ground covers.

"And they extend your bloom season dramatically."

Despite the fact that summer-flowering bulbs can so easily relieve the doldrums of the late-summer garden, they are not in extraordinary demand in this area, said Carrie Engle of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville in an e-mail.

Local gardeners appear to be more interested in varieties for shade, like caladiums, and large-leaved tropicals, like banana trees and elephant ears, she said.

Likewise, Gene Sumi of Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville said the demand has been for the dramatic tropicals.

Often, he wrote in an e-mail, customers will choose potted varieties instead of planting the inexpensive bare bulbs, which might cost as little as $1 each, and that reduces the selection markedly.

Heath of Brent and Becky's Bulbs said it is likely that gardeners simply associate bulb planting with the fall - not with the spring.

"We didn't even offer spring bulbs at first," said Kunst of Old House Gardens. "But we had such a strong response from our customers that now they are a third of our sales."

The appeal of summer-flowering bulbs is that, unlike spring bulbs, they are repeat bloomers and will flower for weeks and even months.

The more dahlias you harvest, said Kunst, the more you have.

The drawback? It is usually necessary to dig them up in the fall and store them in peat in a garage or other cool indoor space for the winter.

"A lot of gardeners think that is too much trouble," said Heath.

"Some folks will take the chance leaving dahlias and cannas in the ground," said Engle. "But they will lose them about half the time."

Van Bourgondien and Kunst think of summer-flowering bulbs as hearty annuals.

"If they come back, it is a bonus," said van Bourgondien.

"Your grandmother dug them up because she was so frugal," said Kunst.

"I tell people that for $5, you can get 200 flowers. If you don't feel like digging [them] up, you have gotten your money's worth."

Besides, both agreed, if your bulbs fail to winter over, it is an excuse to try a new variety: the begonias or the heavily fragrant tuberoses. The easy and abundant Asiatic pixie lilies or a huge black elephant ears. Or cannas or calla lilies.

Just about any garden center will have at least a modest collection of cheaper spring-flowering bulbs. It is an inexpensive way to introduce them to your garden.

It is on the Internet and in catalogs, however, that the range of color, variety and size is dizzying.

"Think of it this way," said van Bourgondien. "For the fall garden, they are better than mums."

Varieties to consider

Dahlias'Clair de Lune,' 'Winsome,' 'Prince Noir,' 'Bishop of Llandaff,' 'Pooh,' 'Mary Eveline,' 'Cafe au Lait' or a selection from the Karma series.

Elephant ears'Black Magic,' 'Nancy's Revenge,' 'Pink China.'

Cannas'Carolina Primrose,' 'Madam Caseneuve,' Robert Kemp,' 'Cleopatra' or dwarf varieties such as 'Pfitzer's Chinese Coral,' 'Lucifer' or 'Picasso.'

Gladiolus'Atom,' 'Boone,' 'Abyssinian' or a variety from the shorter (2 feet) Glamini series.

Caladium'Candyland,' 'White Christmas,' 'Frieda Hemple,' 'Floria Red Ruffles,' 'Florida Elise,' 'Moonlight.'

Tuberoses'Mexican Single,' 'Double Pearl.'

Lily'Miss Lucy,' 'Casa Blanca' or the dwarf mixes, Asiatic mixes (for vibrant color) or Oriental mixes (for fragrance).

Calla lily'Black Forest,' 'Peach Chiffon,' 'Pillow Talk,' 'Green Goddess,' 'Selina.'

Begonia'On Top Calypso,' 'On Top Pink Halo.'


Old House Gardens:

for heirloom bulbs, 734-995-1486,

Brent and Becky's Bulbs:


Select Seeds:


White Flower Farms:




Van Bourgondien:


Homestead Gardens:

743 W. Central Ave., Davidsonville, 410-798-5000.

Valley View Farms:

11035 York Road, Cockeysville, 410-527-0700.

Go deep when planting; take steps to foil foragers

Don't be afraid to experiment with varieties. Summer bulbs like pots, which makes it easy to grow different kinds.

Consider fall colors -- golds, yellows and reds -- when choosing these bulbs because they will still be flowering in fall.

Don't rush to plant these bulbs. Wait until the ground is 60 to 70 degrees or after May 15. Planting late is better than planting early because the bulbs will rot in cold, wet ground, says Pat Sherman, perennial specialist at Valley View Farms. Or, she says, consider starting bulbs in pots indoors.

To prevent tuber rot, don't water bulbs until they sprout.

Leave plenty of room -- 18 to 24 inches -- around these bulbs because the plants get very large.

Mulching helps keep the roots moist and cool. Fertilize with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. These bulbs are heavy feeders.

Summer-flowering bulbs are not going to like the hot, dry Augusts and Septembers in our region. So plant them deeper than the recommended 12 inches to keep them cooler. Planting the bulbs below the frost line will also reduce the need for staking and help the plants winter over.

Consider planting the bulbs inside a collar cut from a plastic potting container, leaving it about an inch or more above ground. Water the plants inside the collar and at ground level instead of down through the foliage. This will help collect the water and direct it to the roots.

If you don't want to be bothered staking your dahlias, plant them inside tomato cages, which will eventually be hidden by the foliage. Plant gladiolus deep to keep them from falling over.

Most of the summer-flowering bulbs are appealing to voles, moles, deer and squirrels. Mask their sweet odor by dipping them in a critter repellent and allowing them to dry before planting. Or mix inert material, such as Soil Perfector, in the planting hole to discourage burrowing and scatter repellent on the surface to discourage digging.

Some gardeners eschew these bulbs because they are convinced it is necessary to dig them up in the fall and store them in peat in the garage or some other cool indoor place. That extra step should guarantee that the bulbs will survive the winter. You can leave them in the ground, planted below the frost line or near the house, in this temperate zone, but you might lose them about half the time.

Dead-head by cutting spent blooms to encourage more vigorous flowering -- or simply pick lots of bouquets.


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