Homeyer: Time to plant bulbs

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(HOST) At this time of year, when most of us are just beginning to think about winter, many gardeners – including commentator Henry Homeyer – are already thinking about spring.

(HOMEYER) On a bright, sunny day recently I planted daffodil bulbs, just as I have each fall for the past 25 years. It’s a ritual I never tire of – planting bulbs for the spring. I’ve planted many kinds of bulbs over the years and some, like daffodils, are as reliable as the dawn. Nothing eats them, and they come back every spring.

Others are less dependable. Squirrels and chipmunks eat tulip bulbs, and deer like to nibble on their flowers before moving on to the shrubbery. And some things just don’t come back after a year or two, or at least not for me. Still, I keep on planting bulbs.

Right now I have fall crocus in bloom. They aren’t true crocus, but are properly called Colchicums. They’re in the lily family, and produce single or double pink or white flowers that surprise me every fall because they have no leaves to warn me that they’re on their way. Well, they do have leaves in the spring, but those disappear by mid-summer. Then all of a sudden the blossoms pop up out of the ground, just when I need a little flower surprise.

The blossoms look like crocus on steroids – they’re 3 times bigger and taller.  Each bulb sends up a series of blossoms over a period of weeks each fall.  But the flowers are heavier than their hollow 3-inch stems can support, so they flop over.

True fall crocus have not proved to be reliable for me in my Zone 4 garden.  I think bulb catalogs are written by optimists or liars, so it may be that I’ve planted varieties that aren’t really hardy to 25 below zero.  One kind of fall crocus I’ve grown is the source of saffron, which is made from the stamen of the flowers.  But I’ve read it takes 7,000 blossoms to make 3 ounces of the precious spice!

Of the early spring bulbs my favorites are snowdrops and a little blue one called Glory of the Snow.  Snowdrops will bloom in March if planted on a sunny south-facing hillside, and Glory of the Snow blooms soon after, their cheerful blue faces looking up to smile at me.  Once we had a snowless winter and snowdrops bloomed for me in January. Now that’s true grit!

If you’ve had your tulips devastated by deer or chewed by chipmunks, try planting them in pots.  Store them in a place that gets cold, but not outdoors where they won’t survive above ground.  Bring them into the warmth of the house in late March and put them on a sunny window sill and they’ll bloom where the deer can’t get them.

Sometimes I wonder if I have a gene that makes me plant things.  Like the squirrels that bury nuts each fall, I feel compelled to plant bulbs.  But it’s a harmless addiction.  I just can’t go past a bulb display without buying at least one package.  Come spring, I’m always glad I did.

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