Potted Bulbs in the Garden

To paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous witticism about whiskey, too much of anything is bad, but too many spring bulbs is just enough. How could any gardener ever have his fill of them? Glorious in themselves, they come at a time when the drabness of winter creates a craving for vivid colors. Bulbs are cheap for the bounty they yield, and many can be expected to return year after year in ever greater abundance. So when a gardener acquires a new property, almost the first thing he does is plant bulbs. And come winter he plants them in pots.

Most gardeners force bulbs for bloom in the dead of winter, and in the way that pleasures are best when anticipated a little beforehand, that is very nice. Even pipping bulbs with their snouts just showing are exciting on display, for the promise that is in them. From January onward, paperwhite narcissus are easy, asking only a few pebbles and some water; hyacinths will bloom with their roots dangling in a fancy pinch-waisted vase made especially for the purpose. Daffodils, tulips, and all the little bulbs will bloom on a sunny windowsill after even six weeks spent in a cold, dark closet or on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. The potted bulbs that give me the most pleasure, however, are not really forced at all. They bloom just about when their counterparts in the garden do, but they have two great advantages over those in borders or naturalized in the open ground: Their pots put them up close, where their beauty may be attentively studied, and they can be moved about at pleasure in the very peak of their bloom.


The process is remarkably easy, though like most gardening (and certainly gardening where bulbs are concerned) it requires advance planning. You must determine the number of pots you can manage and have room to display, remembering that it is very easy to go overboard. Pots should be of clay, the most strong-walled and rugged you can find, for though thin-walled ones may seem a bargain they will certainly crumble under winter frosts. You must also locate a suitable place to “dig them in,” the old estate gardeners’ term for burying pots of roots for winter protection. Any unused corner of the garden will do—sun or shade, it makes no difference. Some gardeners construct special frames, filled with sawdust or rich humus into which the pots are plunged, but a vacant row in the vegetable garden is just fine, or a stretch of the border where annuals grew last summer, or even that bit of heavily shaded ground behind the garage where nothing ever thrives. Really, any old corner will do, provided it is well drained. That is important.

When the bulbs arrive in autumn, potting up is easy. Each pot should be well crocked with two potting shards, placed so they overlap but do not block the drainage hole, to allow free drainage. A good commercial potting medium, such as Pro-Mix, will work better than your own compost, however excellent, because it provides splendid drainage and root generation. Though it does seem to matter how deep bulbs are planted in open ground (the nearer to the surface, the more they increase; the deeper, the less), it hardly matters in a pot. But the necks, where foliage and flowers emerge, should be covered by about one inch of mix to prevent the blooming bulbs from flopping over. Potting can occur anytime between the arrival of the bulbs and when the ground freezes solid, which in colder gardens is sometime in late October. Once in their pots, the bulbs must be kept faithfully watered, because they will begin to sprout thick white roots almost immediately. It is easiest to water the bulbs once they’re planted and then bury the pots promptly in the ground. The soil will then provide moisture, except in unusually dry conditions, when you will probably have to water everything, your bulb pots included.


Once the bulbs are potted they can be buried. The most important part of this step is to bury the pots so that not a speck of the clay is showing. Otherwise, you will get crumbled edges, and sometimes wholly fractured pots. Sink them so that their rims are below the soil level, and then cover them with about four inches of peat moss, which is easier to remove in spring than raw mud. And if your climate is really harsh, as mine is (southern Vermont, USDA Zone 4), a few evergreen boughs laid on top will provide extra cover, and help to protect the pots from the frost. That may be done even in December, after which our coldest weather usually comes.

If you know that the bulbs you are planting are susceptible to damage by rodents, it is necessary to put a sheet of hardware cloth, sometimes descriptively called “rat wire,” over the pots before you cover them, anchoring the wire firmly with stones or with giant hairpins made of bent clothes hangers. Otherwise, whole families of mice and voles will live happily on your potted bulbs as if they were served up in a fancy dish. Narcissis, fritillaries, or the little bulbs—grape hyacinths, snowdrops, scillas, and chiondoxas—are usually no worry. Tulips, crocus, and lilies, on the other hand, are caviar to a mouse. (Indeed, in cat-less gardens—what one might call “feline-deprived”—planting those bulbs in pots and covering them with rat wire may be the only way to enjoy them at all, since the pots themselves will deter rodents from the sides and bottom and the rat wire will protect them on top.)

After potted bulbs have been planted and protected, they join the other bulbs in the garden as what is called “the promise of spring.” In the case of the potted bulbs, however, it is a very special promise, for the curious thing about gardening is that effort—and perhaps planning—are a major part of the pleasure one takes in the whole thing. So on a snowy December night, when outdoor temperatures are well below freezing and ice crystals flower on the windows, you can gather the covers about you and think of prettier blooms, or at least more vivid ones—the scarlet of tulips, daffodils in many yellows, and the cerulean blue of scillas, muscari, and hyacinths, all worth the effort and the wait. 

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