It must annoy people who move to a town, buy an older house that needs work, pour money into it, and find their showplace is still called by the name of the family who built it. The Banks House, where my husband’s paternal grandmother grew up, is one such house. Built about 1880, it was dressed up in the neoclassical style of 1900. At that time, since they apparently had some money, formal gardens were established. I know that not from photographs but because of a stunning visual presentation that happens every fall in the now naturalized yard. Hundreds of red spider lilies, Lycoris radiata, probably planted 120 years ago, pop up overnight in patterns and lines that show us exactly where the paths and beds that once graced the landscape were established.
Another recurring visual story from the past is the annual display of yellow carpets of jonquils that emerge where tenant farmers once lived on their employers’ farms. After long days plowing fields behind a mule, they found the strength to add the promise of beauty to their broom-swept yards with a few offsets from the abundant flowering bulbs that grew in the yards of their employers.
These reminiscences should convince you that bulbs are among the easiest and most rewarding of all plants to grow. From true bulbs, to rhizomes, to corms and more, they are essentially storage organs that developed to allow the plant to exist in a state of suspended animation during difficult environmental periods and then revive when favorable conditions recurred. Many bulbs originated in parts of the world with extended periods of drought or other stresses. Now with whole industries dedicated to their production, you can have beautiful bulb displays for much of the year. If planted with good drainage, most can perform well in a variety of soils and also with part sun. Some prefer filtered light, perhaps even under deciduous trees for early spring-flowering bulbs. Catalogues will tell you sun requirements, but remember that it’s a lot hotter down here than in the northern locations of many catalogue companies, so adjust accordingly.
Andy Cabe, horticulturist and botanical garden director at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, describes himself as a lazy gardener; he doesn’t see any reason to make plant care any harder since there’s always something that must be done in the beautiful garden he oversees. It’s no wonder that he really likes incorporating bulbs into his designs as they don’t need pruning, spraying, or special care. As for planting them, he keeps it simple. First to think about is depth. Andy says a good rule of thumb is that the planting hole should be two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall. If you can’t tell which way is “up” with certain “bulbs” such as anemones, plant them on their side. Although catalogues and websites instruct you to put bone meal or special bulb fertilizer in the hole, both Riverbanks and Moore Farms Botanical Garden simply dig a hole, drop the bulb in, and cover it up — nothing added.
Andy suggests that if you plant bulbs in a pot, put them shoulder to shoulder for a real showstopper. Keep the container in an out-of-the-way spot and then give it a place of honor for maximum “wow” when in bloom. In a garden setting, you still want to get the drama from a large grouping, but space bulbs out somewhat so they can multiply without competing for nutrients for several years before you need to divide them. When they get crowded, wait until the foliage has started to decline and move them then — if you wait too late you won’t know where to dig.
Daffodils are the most satisfactory bulbs for the South, according to Steve Bender of Southern Living magazine. He says that neither deer nor squirrels eat them, an important benefit for many gardeners. Once a bulb has finished blooming, it’s a sad, shriveled-up specimen of its original plump, solid, carbohydrate-filled package. Its leaves now must replenish all those used up carbohydrates by photosynthesizing, and fortunately daffodil foliage scoffs at the heat of our summer. Many gardeners fuss at the persistence of this foliage as it gets long and limp and just won’t die. Force yourself to leave it alone — don’t even tie it up with rubber bands or such — and your bulbs will reward you by increasing in number. If you want to lightly fertilize with a slow release product after flowering, you can sprinkle granules over them. I don’t recommend using a product with equal amounts of N, P, and K. Phosphorus, symbol P, accumulates in our soils; many soil tests come back with super high P values. Another option is to just top-dress with compost, right over the mulch or turf, and it will move through with rainfall, providing nutrients while improving the texture and water holding capacity of your soil.
Order early while the selection is good, and you can get top dollar bulbs. Daffodils and certain other bulbs ship early. Plan to plant mid-November to early January at the latest.
Then we move on to tulips. To me, tulips are like almonds — pecans are much tastier, but the Dutch, like the almond industry, have put so much money into promoting them that they’ve taken on an out-of-proportion popularity, although I do have to say the colors are thrilling. But the regularity of shape is a little boring for me when compared to the incredible diversity of the Narcissus genus (daffodils, jonquils, and narcissus).
Tulips are not persistent in the South. Large public gardens in South Carolina treat them as annuals, which can be a pretty expensive one-time purchase. They have to experience a certain amount of cold to initiate proper flowering and our “winters,” such as they are, simply don’t provide that. Additionally, they have wimpy foliage. When it gets hot, those green leaves simply melt in the heat long before they have replenished the bulb. You may get a few repeats the next year, but the general consensus is to simply pull them up as soon as they finish blooming and compost them. Some species of tulips, smaller and more whimsical in form, will naturalize in our areas and can be quite charming. Deer and voles devour tulips, so keep that in mind if those animals are problematic in your area.
When reading about tulips and certain other spring bulbs better suited to Northern climes, you’ll find instructions on keeping them in the refrigerator for 12 weeks — then you plant them in-mid December! How in the world are you supposed to get all the fixings for Thanksgiving in the refrigerator if the vegetable drawers are full of tulips? If you go to the online catalogue for Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, some of the tulips offered have a purple border around the picture — those have been precooled and the company ships them to you at just the right time in December or January. You have to plant them immediately or the precooling effect loses efficacy.
Even if you go to all this trouble, you still may have tulip failures. One year when I visited Moore Farms Botanical Gardens, which has so many bulbs that for many years they had an annual March festival, Bulbapalooza, the winter had been so warm that the tulip stems didn’t elongate properly, and the blooms were lost in the foliage. Robert Davidson told me that for the past five years, all their bulbs flower earlier and earlier, and they can’t reliably predict when they’ll peak. This year, they’ll announce certain free “open house days,” depending on how the bulbs respond to our ever-warming winters.
For the earliest bloomers, plant crocus and muscari, which although small, can really brighten an area that you walk by often. Crocus come in a variety of colors and are so small you can even tuck them under your lawn; they’ll finish replenishing before it’s time to mow. Although you may have to experiment to find a combination of the right location and species that will reward you with flowers for several years, Katie Dickson, floriculturist at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, says it’s worth it to see their vivid flowers, which are attractive to bees on the warm days when they’re out looking for pollen and nectar. I think it’s best to pack them together in clumps as they are short and the flowers are small, and, in my mind, they’re more interesting when you plant several colors together, not something I’d recommend for such flashy flowers as tulips.
With Muscari, or grape hyacinth, your color choice is limited mostly to blue but with some white available. Again, these bulbs are short, 6 to 8 inches high, and I find the blues to be more noticeable. They hold their own better when naturalized in a lawn than crocus do. Some species of these bulbs, also attractive to early foraging bees, are famed for persisting in the South. Apparently, they were the bulb of choice for challenging cemeteries, such as the one in Tulia, Texas, that sports a hand-painted sign nailed to a wizened tree warning, “Beware of rattlesnakes,” where some still bloom decades after the person they were planted to memorialize was buried in that inhospitable soil.
All the flowering bulbs described above originated in some far-flung part of the world. Lots of bulbs are native to North America, but most thrive in colder parts of the country. But two very dear native iris grow in South Carolina. Iris verna, dwarf violet iris, grows in acidic, drier soils, in open woods from the mountains to the coastal plain. In early spring, the 6-inch solid blue flowers appear. The flowers are described as intensely fragrant; even with that adjective you may have to kneel down to appreciate that charming aspect. They’ll spread and form a lovely mat. The foliage doesn’t last very long so you can plant them near herbaceous perennials that emerge later in the spring.
More often found in more moist soils of the Upstate, Iris cristata, dwarf crested iris, has a much showier bloom with yellow accents on the blue flowers, but if you challenge your knees in an attempt to smell it, you will find no reward. Like most rhizomatous iris, both species multiply quickly in the right conditions, and you’ll certainly leave home, whether for the office or a socially distanced walk with a friend, with a more cheerful countenance after passing by their charming blossoms.
Peruse catalogues, remembering that you’ll have to experiment to find bulbs that will reliably last for decades in your yard, or just have fun with those you want to be up close and personal with in just a few months. When they arrive in the mail, you don’t need a shovel, fertilizer, or even a water hose. Just you and a trowel and a few minutes of time. As Andy Cabe said to me, “They require so little effort and give so much reward.”