2011-09-22 / Editorial

The Island Garden

Preparing a colorful garden

If you want a colorful garden early next spring, now is the time to plant your bulbs. Flowers such as tulips, daffodils, jonquils, narcissus, hyacinths, Siberian squill and other bulbs should go into the ground before frost to enable them to start roots while the ground is still warm.

Your first job is to buy your bulbs. If you are a person who likes heirloom bulbs, Old House Gardens (Old- HouseGardens.com) might be the place to look. It is a small company that specializes in rare and hard-tofi nd bulbs. Another place to look is K. Van Bourgondien & Sons at Dutch- Bulbs.com, or you might want to look at Van Engelen Inc. (VanEngelen.com). All of these companies supply bulbs at reasonable prices. Locally, many stores have bulbs on sale at this time of year at good prices.


Crocus can grow almost anywhere and make a terrific carpet when naturalized. You can also grow your own crocus sativus and harvest your own saffron if you use a lot of saffron in your cooking. Saffron is reputed to be the most expensive spice in the world, so why not grow your own? Old Home Gardens has a number of heirloom crocus that your grandparents may have had growing in their garden. One crocus bulb in their catalog – “the turkey crocus” – dates back to 1587 when crocus were rare.


Tulips are notoriously short lived, but you can keep them for much longer by digging the bulbs after the leaves had died and keeping them in a cool, dark place – your refrigerator is ideal. Replant them in the fall and get a terrifi c crop of tulips next spring. However, there is no real need to dig and replant unless you are really cleaning up the garden. Around here you can simply leave them in the ground, but snip off the seed head when the flower petals drop and fertilize at that time with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. The nutrients ensure that the plant stores enough energy for next season.

Old Home Gardens is the only catalog that has broken tulips. Broken tulips are flowers that open one color and “break” into a second color. They were a tremendous craze during the great tulip boom of the 1880s and only later was it found that the “break” was caused by a tiny virus in the tulip and spread by aphids. If you plant “broken” tulips make sure you plant them away from other tulips so that the virus is not transferred to your regular crop.

More modern tulips are available from any of the companies listed above and in large or small quantities. For example, the Dutch Bulbs website has bags of 100 tulips that range in price from $40 to $100. Just imagine, next spring waking up to a sea of blue and red tulips, or maybe your color is a more regal purple. For around $50 you could have 50 or more plants pushing up their flowers in spring. Plant tulip bulbs about 4 inches deep in a rich soil to which you have added a half-teaspoon of fertilizer. Put them in clumps for best effect rather than singly spreading them around the garden.


No garden is complete without a “host of golden daffodils,” as Wordsworth once put it. Daffodils are one of the earliest spring flowers and to see them nodding their heads across a sea of yellow says spring is here and it’s time to get outside. You can buy bags of daffodils containing a hundred bulbs for under $40 or you can spend just a little more and get rarities with pink-centered flowers and white petals, or double daffodils, trumpet types, and many others.

For naturalizing, K. Van Bourgondien & Sons has a half-bushel of yellow trumpet daffodils for under $100. That’s a lot of planting and you’d better have a strong back to get them all in the ground.

Plant your daffodil bulbs 3 to 4 inches deep, with the roots (fat end) down and the point up. If you plan on naturalizing, simply toss the bulbs on the area to naturalize and plant them where they land. Fertilize each bulb when you plant and each year fertilize them with regular fertilizer as soon as the plants are in flower. Snip off the flower heads when they die back to ensure the plant does not try to make a seed head.

Leave any bulb until the leaves yellow to ensure that the bulb has generated enough nutrients for the following year. If you cut the leaves early, your plants will have short lives, but with a little effort your daffodils can last 20 or 30 years. So when you are spending a few dollars on them think about the pleasure they will give you for the next few years.


Hyacinths are highly scented bulbs that you might want to plant on the upwind side of your property. They bring a huge number of colors to the garden long before other flowers are out, with purple, blue, white, orange and even yellow hyacinths available from Old House Gardens or any of the other bulb purveyors. Like tulips and daffodils, they are fall planted about four inches deep in clumps to bring bright spring color to the early season garden.

I shall be looking for people with aching backs over the next week. These are the people who have planted a lot of fall bulbs. In my case, I have already put a lot of bulbs in and my back has recovered.

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