Field Notes 21

Pacific Northwest BY VALERIE EASTON / Seattle, Washington, Zone 8

The Flash of Early Bulbs

HERE IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST, we’re grateful for every precious flower that blooms beneath spring’s often gray and chilly skies. Nevertheless, once you get over the first thrill, the prevailing pastels get a little boring. Nothing sparks the blandness of pink and yellow like a touch of orange or deep purple, and there are many early bulbs that offer this striking contrast.

Fritillaries are one answer, for their hot or dark coloration combines dramatically with paler pansies, forget-me-nots, primroses, and corydalis. With their fringes and unusual patternings, fritillaries slip easily into any style of garden: they can appear as exotic as a tropical parrot, or homey enough for the cottage garden. Fritillaria imperialis (pictured), for instance, has a frilly, henlike topknot so froufrou as to make it a star candidate for a plant-world version of Legally Blonde. It comes in shades of vivid yellow through brightest orange, and grows a statuesque three to four feet high. Fritillaria meleagris is less than a foot high, with flower bells decorated in faint patterns of white or green checks against a maroon backdrop. Fritillaria persica is a hulk of a plant compared to F. meleagris, growing three feet tall from an egg-shaped bulb. Dozens of plumpurple bells coat the sturdy gray-green stems.

Fritillaries aren’t the only bulbs that come in deep or warm colors to heat up cool spring days. Crocuses bloom earliest of all; C. chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty” is butter yellow, edged in purple with a bronze base, while C. sieberi ‘Tricolor” is a strong lilac blue with a hot yellow center. I particularly like the intricate little selections of Iris reticulata in varying shades of blue and purple, but so do the slugs. Both the crocuses and irises combine well in pots with F. meleagris. Contained, they’ll escape both slimy slugs and the poor drainage that drowns so many bulbous plants in our rainy climate. And it is so quick and easy to compose combinations, thanks to the flats of bulbs available in nurseries, nearly ready to bloom.

Whether in the ground or in pots, any bulb planting benefits from mixing in a few hyacinths, such as the deeply purple ‘Ostara” or the apricot ‘Princess Maria Christina’. Their stiff shape is minimized by skirting them with smaller bulbs, and their strong, sweet perfume reminds us that the fragrant delights of mock orange and lilacs are only weeks away.

To best appreciate any of the early bulbs, the trick is to plant them close to where you walk every morning or evening. For the last few years, our weather pattern has unfortunately tended toward chilly and damp springs. Even though late February often brings a streak of sunshine that coaxes flowers to unfurl, lawns squelch with every step well into April, so I plant bulbs in window boxes, alongside the front porch, or right outside a window where you’ll see them often. The late garden writer Henry Mitchell pointed out (talking about peonies) that it isn’t how long a plant flowers that counts, but rather how much opportunity we have to enjoy it.

To do in the garden

  • The parade of garden cleanup starts after February freezes. First task is to cut back all the old herbaceous matter still standing (or lying around in a heap of mush) so that spring bulbs can grow unhindered. Rake up old leaves, find the edges of the garden, and perhaps see the soil for the first time since last spring.

  • The next step is to take care of the soil. Feed broad-leaved evergreens like camellias and rhododendrons with an acid-type fertilizer, and give hungry plants like hostas, clematis, hydrangeas, and roses a generous helping of rotted manure

  • Before the bulbs and emerging perennials get so tall that it’s tough to work around them, spread a layer of feeding mulch (a combination of manure and bark, all nicely composted down) over the soil.

Worth growing Korean spice viburnum Viburnum carlesii

This shrub’s common name comes from its intense, spicy-sweet perfume—one of the finest scents in the garden at any time of year. A bushy, deciduous shrub that grows to six feet, it takes well to pruning and has rounded, mid-green leaves that stay handsome all summer. Its glory comes during the three weeks in April when its tight pink buds open into large pink-flushed-with-white flower clusters that waft their clovelike fragrance through the garden. Hardy in USDA Zones 5–8. Sources, page 88.

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