Bulbs can compete in rough, tumble border life

Bulbs can compete in rough, tumble border life

Posted: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 8:02 pm
By: By Jimmy Williams

Bulbs are without a doubt one of the best values in gardening. In spring — that’s now, despite the calendar’s astronomical designation — is when we think about them because that is when most are in bloom.
A dozen or so daffodil bulbs will bring years of pleasure to you and your descendants for generations; witness the “buttercups” abounding around old house places and fighting — and winning — against such aggressors as honeysuckle and fescue.
We have daffs and crocuses by the thousands naturalized in thin turf and woodland. I’ve added to them at an average rate of about 1,000 a year for some 20 years or more.
I used to be apprehensive, however, about introducing them to our cultivated borders, which consist of a mixture of annuals, perennials, shrubs, ornamental grasses and small trees. I was afraid the bulbs would be bothered by necessary digging and other work in those borders.
I took a tentative step some years ago with a few crocuses in our rock wall border and found no problem. Then I added daffodils, blue Star of Bethlehem and others.
Our borders are now rife with bulbs, and I have found that an occasional stabbing of a bulb, or even a clump of them, has little serious effect. Even if it did, with so many bulbs in place it would go virtually unnoticed.
So I keep adding them there from year to year. Most bulbs, in the enriched environment of a border, as opposed to the opposite conditions of turf or woodland, will bulk up and increase at the root much faster. Crocuses (the species types stay with me better than the hybrids) will form bulblets at an astounding rate. A single bulb of the inestimable Crocus tommasinianus, for instance, will increase to 50 or more in three years. Some older clumps in our borders produce in excess of 100 flowers.
Daffodils aren’t quite as fast, but they too increase more freely in rich conditions. Daffs need timely division — say, every five or six years — in such an environment. This, of course, produces, many “free” bulbs to be moved to other locations.
More recently I have added Spanish bluebells, Scilla hispanica, in borders and they, too, are permanent and prone to multiplication, though not as quickly as daffs. I have used both white and blue ones, though the whites do me more good, since there is a plethora of blue tones there at the time the bluebells flower, mid-spring to wit. This latter consists of columbines, “wild” (well formerly wild) phlox, Jacob’s ladder, ajuga, pansies et al.
Tulips are one of the jolliest of spring bulbs and augment early border ingredients such as those mentioned with aplomb.
Unfortunately, they are largely temporary, lasting for only one season or maybe two, making them expensive annuals or biennials indeed.
After that, the broad and unattractive foliage may show up for years, creating a lasting problem. It is hard to hide.
One solution for both the expense problem and the fleeting blooms is to buy tulip bulbs late in the season, after Christmas even, when they are marked down to almost nothing, then plant them shallowly. They will bloom the first spring, then can be yanked out and discarded.
Bulbs that have lasting foliage — and that’s almost all of them — can be planted toward the back of a border if they bloom early enough not to be obscured by your perennials that emerge in spring. Otherwise, plant the bulbs right amongst the perennials, so that the latter will obscure the bulb foliage.
In fact, some emerging perennial foliage is a fine foil for bulbs. There are all sorts of combinations suitable for this treatment.
I am planning to plant this fall 20 Itzim miniature daffodils among a patch of ‘Red Dragon’ persicaria. The latter’s leaves emerge early, red with a green chevron.
I believe they will be a a perfect complement for ‘Itzim’s’ yellow petals and bright red-orange perianth.
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From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Bulbs are just more perennials.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.

Published in The Messenger 3.22.11

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