Bulbmania begins



But first, let’s can the BS. The Ithaca Journal informs me that:

It is possible to have three months of spring bulbs in our climate, from late February or early March through the end of May. The season starts out with winter aconites and snowdrops, followed by glory-of-the-snow, bulbous Iris reticulata, crocuses, Siberian squill, Puschkinia, Anemone blanda, and early Narcissus.

Right. Late February? I’m lucky to have a couple of unhappy-looking snowdrops by late March. And in Ithaca, I’m pretty sure, it might even be worse. Of course, who knows what might bloom and die under the snow in February.

The bulb propaganda has begun. Right on schedule, we are being guaranteed “months of spring color,” though I’ve noticed that most of the articles are now much more honest about how many years tulips will bloom. As regular GR readers should know, I am already there. No need to coax me. Just show me some pretty pictures and my credit card is at the ready. But I go into it with my eyes open, always putting the bulbs where they won’t cause disruption later in the season.260132m1205165234

One thing that bulb catalogs invariably do is show huge swaths and rivers of densely packed color. Although I know that many people do have large properties where they could plant hundreds of same-color bulbs, it’s not all that practical. Better to mix the small ones in with ground cover, where their foliage can disappear after they’ve bloomed. Large bulbs like hybrid tulips can work in densely packed groupings where they can be shoveled out and replaced with other plants later. I’m not sure I’d want to do that with a twenty-foot-long swath.

Another thing that is very au courant is the planned bulb mixture, or the companion mixtures of perennials and bulbs. I am not certain how I feel about this. I’ve bought mixes in the past, and though the plants were good performers, sometimes there was a bit too long of a lag between when the different colors bloomed. My issue with companion plantings is that though the bulbs will be ready to go, the perennials will take time to mature. So there’s another lag. It’s all kind of a crapshoot, but I’m open to the concept.

One thing that bulb vendors do that I absolutely love is that they always find some unusual variety I’ve never seen. This year, I’m very excited about some hyacinths (strictly for forcing) from Brent & Becky’s and Old House Gardens, two of which are shown here (from top, B&B’s Raphael and Isabelle. I also love OHG’s Madame Sophie and Double Chestnut, but one can’t use their images).

That’s the way to sucker me in. Never mind the mixtures and the companions; show me some weird cultivars, charge double for them, and I’m there.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. In balmy Buffalo you don’t have any bulbs blooming ’til late March? Must be because you still have two feet of snow on the the ground. Late March is the peak of ‘little bulb’ season here in Ithaca.

    Anytime the snow melts during winter here outside town (where it’s also a hardiness zone colder), I’ve usually got cyclamen in bud that sometimes break open if we get a few days of sun.

    Here’s what was flowering the first week of March this year: http://www.remarc.com/craig/?p=345 Most years, snowdrops, eranthis, and crocus and some of the early irises are in flower or close to it well before the Ides.

    If you want to add another month of color — albeit color you might have to bend over to to appreciate — here’s my advice:

    Start at the back of the catalog this year and spend the bulk of your budget on the so-called ‘minor’ bulbs.

  2. Ithaca has a much milder climate than Buffalo, by far. I recall snowdrops in late February many years. It really depends on the snowfall, of course, but by early March the spring flowers were definitely coming in.

  3. In my first fall in north Florida, I planted 48 tulips and one (1) leaf came up in the spring. Why don’t the bulb vendors or their local dealers give us instructions saying that you have to put them in the refrigerator for six weeks before planting them here in zone 8/9, and that they should be treated like an annual? .
    Of course, there are a bunch of bulbs I can grow here that would never have made it up in Maryland.

  4. Oh sure, Craig, I have seen snowdrops in March 15, but they do tend to get totally covered with snow. That happened last year. I don’t really begin to enjoy bulbs until April.

  5. I agree, the catalogs make it look like you could have Holland in your back yard. But I like interplanting bulbs and perennials–in my garden, anyway, there is a lag, but the foliage of the perennials (e.g., hosta or mums) does cove up the fading foliage of the daffodils or even some iris.

  6. After living in a mediterranean climate for the past few decades I have learned that many spring bulbs just don’t cut it here.
    Our winters are not cold or long enough to set the chilling hours required for a decent performance.
    On the brighter side though, we don’t have to dig up and store many of our more tender bulbs during the winter months and many multiply like fleas due to our temperate weather.
    I guess you just have to adjust to the weather that you choose to live in .
    I have accepted that I will never have a grand showing of tulips in mass but will always be dazzled by Nerines, Amarllis,Sparaxis,Abysinnian gladiolas, Leucojums, Callas, Dahlias and others that enjoy a warm medit. climate.

  7. The bulbs I want are always the pricey ones (Mint Julep narcissus, for example, or Odysseus hyacinths, or Valerine Finnis muscari). Like when I want shopping for school clothes and my Mom used to comment I had good taste because I always picked the most expensive thing.

    I am going to order from http://www.vanengelen.com. Great selection and prices in their catalog; I have never ordered from them before. I am sick of all those glossy photos from Brecks and Dutch Gardens and Van Bourgondien, and they’re charging $13 for 9 tulips. Bitch, please. Even Wayside Gardens is not that overpriced. Right now, trying not to be tempted by all the “$20 off your order!” coupons.

    Last year was lots of pink and purple. This year, going with orange and blue. Gypsy Queen and Delft Blue hyacinths (added to the Kronos and Blue Jacket already there), Valerie Finnis muscari (added to many cobalts and Blue Spike), Salmon Impression and Daydream tulips…and maybe some late-blooming Queen of Nights cuz I love ’em.

  8. Hi Chuck b.
    I purchased one of those Squill flower plants about 7 years ago and have never seen a flower yet.
    Got it from San Marco’s Growers as a 3 or 4 year old bulb – it was the size of a small watermelon .
    It dependably sends up great looking foliage during our winter months and then goes dormant in the summer but has never sent up that spectacular flower that it promised.
    It was planted in full open sun 7 years ago but now the surrounding palm trees , bananas and other foliage has grown up so it might not receive enough summer time sunshine to bloom.
    I’ve been contemplating moving it but each year I think, just one more year and it might bloom…..
    It taunts me.

  9. It’s all coming back to me now. I posted on this squill, after having seen it in probably that same catalog. And Michelle responded with pretty much what she says above. I was fascinated with it–don’t blame either of you for trying it!

    Currently I am experiencing utter failure with byzantine glads.(acidothrus or something)

  10. Liz:

    Ten blocks from downtown Syracuse (where it does occasionally snow), it’s not unusual for us to have snowdrops in bloom up against the south-facing wall of our front porch in late January or early February, and aconites blooming out near the curb during the last week or so in February. Of course, it’s often mid-March before the snowdrops are blooming in shaded spots in our backyard.

    On the back end, the latest we’ve had the very latest daffodils going out of bloom was the last week in May. And, of course, the alliums bloom through the first week of June depending upon the year.

    As the saying goes, it’s all about “location, location, location!” This far north, any spot that the sun hits (when it’s not covered with clouds) frequently can advance the bloom season by at least two or three weeks.

    By the way, it’s also not extraordinary (maybe once every third or fourth year) for us to have Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) in bloom by the end December!

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