Every lover of flowers should have a garden of bulbs, for three reasons: First, they bloom so early in the season that one can have flowers at least six weeks longer than it is possible to have them if only perennial and annual plants are depended on. Some bulbs come into bloom as soon as the snow is gone, at the north, to be followed by those of later habit, and a constant succession of bloom can be secured by a judicious selection of varieties, thus completely tiding over the usually flowerless period between the going of winter and the coming of the earlier spring flowers. Second, they require but little care, much less than the ordinary plant. Give them a good soil to grow in, and keep weeds and grass from encroaching on them, and they will ask no other attention from you, except when, because of a multiplication of bulbs, they need to be separated and reset, which will be about every third year. The work required in doing this is no more than that involved in spading up a bed for annual flowers. Third, they are so hardy, even at the extreme north, that one can be sure of bloom from them if they are given a good covering in fall, which is a very easy matter to do.
For richness and variety of color this class of plants stands unrivalled. The bulb garden is more brilliant than the garden of annuals which succeeds it.
September is the proper month in which to make the bulb garden.
As a general thing, persons fail to plant their bulbs until October and often November, thinking the time of planting makes very little difference so long as they are put into the ground before winter sets in. Here is where a serious mistake is made. Early planting should always be the rule, for this reason: Bulbs make their annual growth immediately after flowering, and ripen off by midsummer. After this, they remain dormant until fall, when new root-growth takes place, and the plant gets ready for the work that will be demanded of it as soon as spring opens. It is made during the months of October and November, if cold weather does not set in earlier, and should be fully completed before the ground freezes. If incomplete as is always the case when late planting is done the plants are obliged to do or attempt to do a double duty in spring. That is, the completion of the work left undone in fall and the production of flowers must go on at the same time, and this is asking too much of the plant. It cannot produce fine, perfect flowers with a poorly-developed root-system to supply the strength and nutriment needed for such a task, therefore the plants are not in a condition to do themselves justice. Often late-planted bulbs fail to produce any flowers, and, in most instances, the few flowers they do give are small and inferior in all respects.
With early-planted bulbs it is quite different, because they had all the late fall-season to complete root-growth in, and when winter closed in it found them ready for the work of spring.
Therefore, do not neglect the making of your bulb garden until winter is at hand under the impression that if the bulbs are planted any time before snow comes, all is well. This is the worst mistake you could possibly make.
The catalogues of the bulb-dealers will be sent out about the first of September. Send in your order for the kinds you decide on planting at once, and as soon as your order has gone, set about preparing the place in which you propose to plant them. Have everything in readiness for them when they arrive, and put them into the ground as soon after they are received as possible.
The soil in which bulbs should be planted cannot be too carefully prepared, as much of one’s success with these plants depends upon this most important item. It must be rich, and it must be fine and mellow.
The best soil in which to set bulbs is a sandy loam.
The best fertilizer is old, thoroughly rotted cow-manure. On no account should fresh manure be used. Make use, if possible, of that which is black from decomposition, and will crumble readily under the application of the hoe, or iron rake. One-third in bulk of this material is not too much. Bulbs are great eaters, and unless they are well fed you cannot expect large crops of fine flowers from them. And they must be well supplied with nutritious food each year, because the crop of next season depends largely upon the nutriment stored up this season.
If barnyard manure is not obtainable, substitute bonemeal. Use the fine meal, in the proportion of a pound to each yard square of surface. More, if the soil happens to be a poor one. If the soil is heavy with clay, add sand enough to lighten it, if possible.
The ideal location for bulbs is one that is naturally well drained, and has a slope to the south.
Unless drainage is good success cannot be expected, as nothing injures a bulb more than water about its roots. Therefore, if you do not have a place suitable for them so far as natural drainage is concerned, see to it that artificial drainage supplies what is lacking. Spade up the bed to the depth of a foot and a half. That is—throw the soil out of it to that depth,—and put into the bottom of the excavation at least four inches of material that will not decay readily, like broken brick, pottery, clinkers from the coal-stove, coarse gravel—anything that will be permanent and allow water to run off through the cracks and crevices in it, thus securing a system of drainage that will answer all purposes perfectly. It is of the utmost importance that this should be done on all heavy soils. Unless the water from melting snows and early spring rains drains away from the bulbs readily you need not expect flowers from them.
After having arranged for drainage, work over the soil thrown out of the bed until it is as fine and mellow as it can possibly be made. Mix whatever fertilizer you make use of with it, when you do this, that the two may be thoroughly incorporated. Then return it to the bed. There will be more than enough to fill the bed, because some space is given up to drainage material, but this will be an advantage because it will enable you to so round up the surface that water will run off before it has time to soak into the soil to much depth.
I do not think it advisable to say much about plans for bulb-beds, because comparatively few persons seem inclined to follow instructions along this line. The less formal a bed of this kind is the better satisfaction it will give, as a general thing. It is the flower that is in the bed that should be depended on to give pleasure rather than the shape of the bed containing it.
I would advise locating bulb-beds near the house where they can be easily seen from the living-room windows. These beds can be utilized later on for annuals, which can be sown or planted above the bulbs without interfering with them in any respect.
I would never advise mixing bulbs. By that, I mean, planting Tulips, Hyacinths, Daffodils, and other kinds in the same bed. They will not harmonize in color or habit. Each kind will be found vastly more pleasing when kept by itself.
I would also advise keeping each color by itself, unless you are sure that harmony will result from a mixture or combination of colors. Pink and white, blue and white, and red and white Hyacinths look well when planted together, but a jumble of pinks, blues, and reds is never as pleasing as the same colors would be separately, or where each color is relieved by white.
The same rule applies to Tulips, with equal force.
We often see pleasing effects that have been secured by planting reds and blues in rows, alternating with rows of white. This method keeps the quarrelsome colors apart, and affords sufficient contrast to heighten the general effect. Still, there is a formality about it which is not entirely satisfactory to the person who believes that the flower is of first importance, and the shape of the bed, or the arrangement of the flowers in the bed, is a matter of secondary consideration.
Bulbs should be put into the ground as soon as possible after being taken from the package in which they are sent out by the florist. If exposed to the light and air for any length of time they part rapidly with the moisture contained in their scales, and that means a loss of vitality. If it is not convenient to plant them at once, leave them in the package, or put them in some cool, dark place until you are ready to use them.
As a rule Hyacinths, Tulips, and Narcissus should be planted about five inches deep, and about six inches apart.
The smaller bulbs should be put from three to four inches below the surface and about the same distance apart.
In planting, make a hole with a blunt stick of the depth desired, and drop the bulb into it. Then cover, and press the soil down firmly.
Just before the ground is likely to freeze, cover the bed with a coarse litter from the barnyard, if obtainable, to a depth of eight or ten inches. If this litter is not to be had, hay or straw will answer very well, if packed down somewhat. Leaves make an excellent covering if one can get enough of them. If they are used, four inches in depth of them will be sufficient. Put evergreen boughs or wire netting over them to prevent their being blown away.
I frequently receive letters from inexperienced bulb-growers, in which the writers express considerable scepticism about the value of such a covering as I have advised above, because, they say, it is not deep enough to keep out the frost, therefore it might as well be dispensed with. Keeping out the frost is not what is aimed at. We expect the soil about the bulbs to freeze. But such a covering as has been advised will prevent the sun from thawing out the frost after it gets into the soil, and this is exactly what we desire. For if the frost can be kept in, after it has taken possession, there will not be that frequent alternation between freezing and thawing which does the harm to the plant. For it is not freezing, understand, that is responsible for the mischief, but the alternation of conditions. These cause a rupture of plant-cells, and that is what does the harm. Keep a comparatively tender plant frozen all winter and allow the frost to be drawn out of it gradually in spring, and it will survive a season of unusual cold. The same plant will be sure to die in a mild season if left exposed to the action of the elements, because of frequent and rapid changes between heat and cold.
Whatever covering is given should be left on the beds as long as possible in spring, because of the severely cold weather we frequently have at the north after we think all danger is over. However, as soon as the plants begin to make much growth, this covering will have to be removed. If a cold night comes along after this has been done spread blankets or carpeting over the beds. Keep them from resting on the tender growth of the plants by driving pegs into the soil a short distance apart, all over the bed. The young plants may not be killed by quite a severe freeze, but they will be injured by it, and injury of any kind should be guarded against at this season, if you want fine flowers.
Holland Hyacinths should receive first consideration, because they are less likely to disappoint than any other hardy bulb. There are single and double kinds, both desirable. Personally I prefer the single sorts, as they are less prim and formal than the double varieties, whose flowers are so thickly set along the stalk that individuality of bloom is almost wholly lost sight of. They are, in this respect, like the double Geraniums we use in summer bedding, whose trusses of bloom resemble a ball of color more than anything else, at a little distance, the suggestion of individual bloom being so slight that it seldom receives consideration. However, they do good service where color-effects are considered of more importance than anything else. Single Hyacinths have their flowers more loosely arranged along the stalk, and are therefore more graceful than the double varieties, and their colors are quite as fine. These range from pure white through pale pink and rose, red, scarlet, crimson, blue and charming yellows to dark purple.
Roman Hyacinths are too tender for outdoor culture at the north.
There are several quite distinct varieties of the Tulip. There is an early sort, a medium one, a late one, and the Parrot, which is prized more for its striking combinations of brilliant colors than for its beauty of form or habit. We have single and double varieties in all the classes, all coming in a wide range of both rich and delicate colors. Scarlets, crimsons, and yellows predominate, but the pure whites, the pale rose-colors, and the rich purples are general favorites. Some of the variegated varieties are exceedingly brilliant in their striking color-combinations.
The Narcissus is one of the loveliest flowers we have. It deserves a place very near, if not quite at, the head of the list of our best spring-blooming plants. Nothing can be richer in color than the large double sorts, like Horsfieldii, and Empress, with their petals of burnished gold. There are many other varieties equally as fine, but with a little difference in the way of color—just enough to make one want to have all of them. The good old-fashioned Daffodil is an honored member of the family that should be found in every garden. When you see the Dandelion’s gleam of gold in the grass by the wayside you get a good idea of the brilliant display a fine collection of Narcissus is capable of making, for in richness of color these two flowers are almost identical.
Among the smaller bulbs that deserve special mention are the Crocus, the Snow Drop, the Scilla, and the Musk or Grape Hyacinth. These should be planted in groups, to be most effective, and set close together. They must be used in large quantities to produce much of a show. They are very cheap, and a good-sized collection can be had for a small amount of money.
Those who have a liking for special colors will do well to make their selections from the named varieties listed in the catalogues. You can depend on getting just the color you want, if you order in this way. But in no other way. Mixed collection will give you some of all colors, but there is no way of telling “which is which” until they come into bloom.
But in mixed collections you will get just as fine bulbs and just as fine colors as you will if you select from the list of named varieties. Only you won’t know what you are getting. Named sorts will cost considerable more than the mixtures.