Saturday, April 30, 2005

Bulbs, With Mixed Success

Moving to the front of my house, I have a bulbous foundation planting, about the only thing I planted in 2003 apart from a nursery bed. The bed gets sun from about 1:00 PM on (that’s high noon given Daylight Savings Time).

In this photo, (from May 1, 2004) the Crocus blooms have passed (you can see the grassy foliage of those in front) and the Alliums have yet to bloom. The former were of course welcome harbingers of spring, as well as being beautiful of bloom and foliage in their own right, although we would hardly notice them if they bloomed in June unless they carpeted a large section.

I was especially happy with the three orange Crown Imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) near the back. They are well worth the $6 a bulb, as much for their tall (40”) stately foliage and funky smell (some don’t like it) as for their flowers, which are rather short-lived like most early bulbs’ (perhaps a week at peak beauty). I can always justify such a purchase when I compare it to cut florist flowers.

What’s not working here? The back row, of azaleas and the Narcissus (daffodils) which are just inside them, which was here when I bought the house in 2003. While the Narcissus added a certain something when the house was white, they are barely noticeable against the now-yellow house. And the azaleas are quite hideous before they flower (pale purple) and get their leaves in mid-May; they manage to hang on to just enough withered brown leaves through the winter as to look more ugly and bleak than even bare sticks. They are slightly more compact this year after moderate pruning last June.

Finally, the predictable flaw in my all-bulb design is its lack of bloom or even foliage after late May. The nasty dying-down bulb foliage isn’t hidden at all and can’t be removed until June lest the bulbs weaken and die out over the next season or two – the few, later-blooming Alliums can’t hold their own under these conditions.

How did the plants hold up in this, the bed’s second year? Most of the bulbs have returned, to my semi-surprise given that through last summer I found dozens of holes dug in this bed by chipmunks, until I did away with them with a rather sinister trap. The rodents seem to have gone primarily for the Crocus, as there are about a third as many of these this year. The grape hyacinths and tulips seem exactly like last year, as do the Alliums, although it’s too early to tell about the Alliums’ blooms.

The most noticeable decline is in the Fritillaria imperialis. One didn’t come up at all. A second came up, but with two stalks for a while, and it does not now have a flower. I understand that bulb-splitting and non-flowering is common with these plants in the garden. (Obviously someone has figured out how to grow perfect flowering bulbs for sale, no doubt in a field with more sun, perfect drainage and high fertility.) The third Fritillaria is blooming now, but it and its nonflowering sibling are only about two-thirds of the height they reached last year. Yet the two tallish plants are still a positive, bringing vertical elements, foliage color, and one rather impressive cluster of orange blooms to an otherwise blankish wall flanked by the “undead.”

I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from growing Fritillaria imperialis based on my example. Again, they’re only getting half sun, and my soil here is only about 8 inches deep, over foundation-related gravel, meaning the fist-sized bulbs were at the bottom of the soil layer. Further, the top 3 or 4 inches of dirt seemed to be almost entirely cedar mulch of varying levels of decomposition. The breakdown of wood removes Nitrogen from the soil, but I applied a bare minimum of Hollytone 4-6-4 to the bed last summer, probably later than would do much good for the bulbs. I’m not a strictly organic gardener, but I do generally minimize my use of chemicals; for some reason it would bother me much more to kill things from a chemical excess than from neglect.

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