November Is the New October – Plant Bulbs Now

Photograph By
Cheryl Corson

Asiatic lilies need to be planted in late fall and will bloom in mid-summer with Echinacea and day lilies such as this casa blanca lily.

You may think that the time to plant bulbs was in September, or October at the latest. Think again. With the hottest year on record, and temperatures hitting 90 degrees on Oct. 19, we must move back our bulb planting to November. Spring flowering bulbs are best planted after the first hard frost. If you’re reading this in early November, you are right on time to begin a bulb planting campaign, which is one 2016 campaign guaranteed to bring you pleasure.

Bulb Basics

Bulbs are the most magical garden plants. One definition of a bulb is “any plant that stores its complete life cycle in an underground storage structure.”  When you hold a daffodil bulb in your hand, you will see its “tunic,” or brown sheath, which covers a fleshy mass comprised of layers of immature leaves and flowers. When planted after the season turns cold, the bulb embodies the myth of Demeter and Persephone, spending the winter months hidden underground before reemerging in full flower in spring.

Bulbs represent the universal need for a period of dormancy and gestation. They teach us trust. They represent hope and patience. When we plant bulbs we become intimately connected to the cycle of the seasons. Compared to other plant purchases, except for seeds, bulbs are the most affordable.

Capitol Hill brick rowhouses are the perfect urban backdrop for bulbs. The deep red brick and black ironwork sets off every type of bulb to advantage. Capitol Hill front gardens that are slightly elevated on the street provide the opportunity for passersby to admire bulbs closer to eye level and more easily enjoy the fragrant ones. Not only is the Hill a perfect visual backdrop, its warmer micro-climate assures an early arrival of spring flowering bulbs.

Blooming Order and Tree Companions

Early blooming bulbs are crocuses, glory in the snow (Chionodoxa), grape hyacinth (Muscari latifolium), spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum), early daffodils, and windflower (Anemone blanda). Leucojum and daffodils provide strappy, dark green leaves, long before their perennial cousins break dormancy, and blasts of undiluted pure color. The bright primary colors of most early bulbs, set off by bright whites, are the garden’s wake-up call. These early bulbs will bloom together with the earliest flowering trees and shrubs, such as shadbush (Amelanchier), cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), winter hazel (Corylopsis), Harry Laudern’s walking stick (Corylus avellana Contorta), and even late-flowering spring camellias.

The first rush of early bulbs is followed by mid-season selections of tulips and ornamental onions (Alliums), which bloom together with the dogwoods (Cornus florida), redbuds (Cercis canadensis), Carolina silverbells (Halesia carolina), and the unavoidable azaleas. By the time these have passed their prime, herbaceous perennials have hit their stride and are ready to take over the show.

Mid-summer flowering bulbs such as lilies bloom with Echinacea and phlox, and offer drama and fragrance. These bulbs must be planted late, no earlier than November. One favorite is casa blanca, which is pure white, three to four feet tall, and is great in gardens that will be enjoyed in the evenings.

Bulbs for Pollinators

Not only do the earliest flowering bulbs extend the garden’s season of bloom, they offer important nectar for early arriving songbirds and pollinators. Some resources say that bees can most easily see the ultraviolet rays of blue and purple flowering bulbs reflected in the sun, so consider the deep blue grape hyacinth, purple crocus, and anemones on the early side, and large purple drumstick Allium, which bloom later in the season.

According to the blog Urban Pollinators, “most daffodils … are highly bred and have lost their pollen-attracting features. You can plant wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) instead, which is pollinated by bumblebees.” See http://urbanpollinators.blogspot.com/2013/02/early-spring-flowers-for-pollinators.html.

The Alliums are very pollinator-friendly. They are in the onion family, which makes them unattractive to squirrels (unlike tulips and crocuses). They have straight stems ranging from 15 to 40 inches tall, with spherical, multi-floral blooms ranging from softball to volleyball size. Although there are white ones, the blue to purple colors are most attractive to pollinators. Plant them in groups of no less than seven for best visual effect.

Daffodil Selections

While November is the best time for bulb planting, it is not the time to linger over bulb catalogs. That time would be summer of next year. Daffodils, like Alliums, are unattractive to squirrels. There are numerous choices, as they are “divided into 13 divisions according to their flower shape and heritage,” according to noted local daffodil growers Brent and Becky Heath (https://brentandbeckysbulbs.com/). Daffodils bloom over a wide time range, making it possible to have daffodils in your garden for months. Plant all bulbs in groupings of no less than seven for a good effect. Here are three I’ve selected, covering a range of bloom time:

1.     Saint Keverne, an all-yellow, early spring bloomer and heirloom selection dating from 1930. It has a deep cup on stems 13 to 18 inches tall. Saint Keverne has a large cup. See https://brentandbeckysbulbs.com/Narcissus/Saint-Keverne/Daffodil.

2.     Thalia is a mid-late season bloomer with white, fragrant blooms and two or three flowers per stem, growing 12 to 14 inches tall. It makes a great cut flower. Thalia is an historic selection, dating from 1916. This makes it not only 100 years old this year, but appropriate to the many Capitol Hill homes built at this time. https://brentandbeckysbulbs.com/Narcissus/Thalia/Daffodil

3.     Baby boomer is a miniature selection, bright yellow, with five to 10 flowers per stem. Baby boomer blooms in mid-late spring on stems that are 4 to 8 inches tall. One advantage to the miniature selections is that their spent foliage will easily be covered by surrounding perennials, allowing them to recharge out of sight for the next season. https://brentandbeckysbulbs.com/Narcissus/Baby-Boomer/Daffodil

Planting Tips

Besides planting after the first frost, you need to know two basic things: how deep to plant and which way is up. Becky Heath offers a basic rule of thumb, which is that “planting depth is three times the height of the bulb. So if the bulb is two inches tall, then the bottom of the hole should be about six inches deep.” Heath’s excellent article, “Interplanting Spring Bulbs,” appears in the September/October issue of the American Gardener. Regarding which way is up, you will usually see a tapered smooth tip on your bulb, which is the top, and a rougher, wider bottom from which the roots develop. Daffodils, tulips, crocuses are all pretty obvious, but if you are truly stumped just lay them on their sides and they will work it out for you.

I prefer to plant bulbs with a multi-purpose Japanese knife called a Hori-Hori tool, available at Frager’s or Ginkgo Gardens. A narrow trowel will work just as well. The inexpensive bulb planting tools you’ll find to be awkward and easy to break, so get a cushioned garden knee pad or bench (also at Frager’s or Ginkgo Gardens) and do the work by hand close to the ground.

Avoid planting bulbs in poorly drained garden areas. Interplant them in groupings among your hostas, hellebores, day lilies, heuchera, and other low-growing perennials. Plant on a sunny cool day when you can enjoy being outside. You will find that bulbs supercharge your garden and your spirit.

There are hundreds of types of daffodils with different heights and colors.

Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect and writer in private practice as Cheryl Corson Design, www.cherylcorson.com. Her first private design commission was on the Hill in 1997. She began her business on the Hill in 2003 and congratulates the Hill Rag on 40 years of community-building.


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