We love these heralds of spring, and now is the best time to buy bulbs to plant in fall.
By Panayoti Kelaidis
One of life’s great experiences is visiting Holland in spring. The bulb fields are chock-full and dazzling, but what delighted me even more were the masses of daffodils, crocuses and tulips in every private garden. Yet bulbs in Holland are not as easily grown as they are for us. Every summer, almost all Dutch bulbs are unearthed, divided and taken indoors so they won’t rot in the wet season.
Bulbs are primarily plants of semiarid and Mediterranean habitats, so they’re endemic to places that are dry and hot, which means they’re perfect for Colorado gardens. Yet each garden in the Netherlands has more bulbs than you’ll find in an entire neighborhood here. I think that’s because most people here buy bulbs in autumn. By then, they’re often tired of gardening and have thrown in the trowel, so to speak. So it’s no surprise this fantastic gardening arena is terribly underdeveloped in Colorado.
The solution is to order your bulbs in springtime, or at least by early summer, when you still have a bit of enthusiasm. That’s also a good time to determine where your bulbs would best highlight the garden, as other plants are just coming in and you can still see the garden’s barer spots. I have friends who put colored sticks in those places to remind them where to plant their bulbs later in fall. Order bulbs by mail or get them at your favorite nursery, but don’t wait until fall—the best ones will have sold out. And, because bulbs are usually inexpensive and likely to spread, your initial investment compounds every year.
Here are some of my favorites.
Panayoti Kelaidis is senior curator and director of outreach at Denver Botanic Gardens.
11 Persian Star Onion (Allium christophii)
22 Black Mountain Onion
This onion is very decorative, with pale lavender or white flowers, and more expensive dark-purple selections are now reaching the market. The oval, glaucous leaves are what set off this plant. This onion also seeds, though I’ve never heard anyone complain. It’s a stunning plant that’s quite adaptable in part shade or sun and most any soil.
33 Ragged Robin
Bright pink bulbs are rather rare, with the exception of colchicums. My favorite among the early-bloomers is the ragged robin, a colchicum cousin that can bloom in February. The petal segments are slightly asymmetrical, giving the plant a cocky look. It thrives in a sunny rock garden or in a perennial border where its charms can be appreciated.
44 Reticulate Iris
Reticulate iris is a proficient spreader. After a few years, divide these as soon as they’ve bloomed and you’ll have drifts throughout your garden. They come in a wide range of hues, from nearly cobalt blue through a vast range of lavender purples to nearly violet. There are even a few whites, but the strong navy blue ‘Harmony’ remains my favorite. Plant these by the hundred (they’re cheap), and your February garden will sparkle!
55 Autumn Crocus
I’m usually not a fan of double flowers; they seem too blowsy to me. But I make an exception for autumn crocus, which has an extravagant fall display. The flowers do have a fleeting resemblance to water lilies, and most bloom early in fall. They also produce a fountain of luscious spring foliage—rather like the so-called skunk cabbage in our mountains—so don’t plant them amid delicate plants.
66 Cloth of Gold Crocus
I don’t think a garden can have too many crocuses, as they bloom early and add much color. This brassy, orange-yellow crocus has an accommodating habit, and it’s inexpensive so you can afford to buy it by the hundred and lavish it everywhere in your garden. It thrives in almost any soil in sun and even partial shade. Expect its sunny color to appear in late January in some years, and often last till March.
77 Tommy Crocus
Prolific Tommy seeds quickly and widely. The paler forms are the most prolific, and all have brilliant yellow stigmas that contrast with their lavender petals. Blooms last a rather long time, and the plant thrives in part shade or full sun. Few spectacles are as pleasing as an army of vivid Tommies in the morning backlight.
88 Lavender Fall Crocus
Compared to most of the spring-blooming bulbs, this fall crocus produces enormous flowers. The best are almost true blue in color, though usually tinged lavender. I have a number of slightly different color forms, including crystalline white. I’ve found they enjoy a bit of extra moisture and some shade. These reproduce from seed, so put them where you might want quite a few.
99 Peeping Tom Daffodil
Daffodils form dense tufts that no pests seem to bother, as they contain toxic chemicals that discourage herbivores. You can’t go wrong with almost any daffodil, but I’m especially enchanted by this heavenly scented, mid-sized hybrid whose outlandish flowers have petals that sweep backward—much like a dog’s ears when it sticks its head out a car window.
1010 Royal Red Tulip
Tulips may not be for people with deer-plagued gardens, although repellents can keep creatures at bay. The royal red is a giant, red-flowered early bloomer that’s long-lived and easily established. It may decline after a few years, but a good compost feeding as it comes into bloom usually brings it back, as does dividing the clump in summer.
1111 Yellow Meadow Tulip
Anyone can grow this yellow tulip with white tips. It does best in dappled shade with good soil, and produces seeds abundantly—all of which seem to germinate! I have friends who now have hundreds of this tulip, but began with only a few dozen. The whole plant disappears after going to seed, so it would be fabulous planted beneath ostrich ferns or hostas.
1212 Violacea Black Base Tulip
This miniature magenta morsel is a favorite. The hot pink color glows like fire in garden borders, and the small leaves are inoffensive. This is an ideal candidate for mass planting in a xeriscape, especially since it produces lots of seeds that germinate around the parent plants and soon grow into a wonderful carpet of spring color.
1313 Lady Tulip
The typical lady (aka candy-striped) tulip spreads extravagantly by underground runners, and often has poor blooms. But the hybrid varieties are not invasive and have larger, showier flowers. The bright flower’s cherry-and-white stripes are popular with children (and adults), so this hybrid is one you’ll want to plant.
1414 Cretan Tulip
Pink and yellow is a heavenly combo in this rare tulip from Crete. The bright green leaves are more upright, and the flowers bloom a bit later than other species. If you plant it in a good rich spot, it quickly spreads by underground runners and makes a spectacle in the garden.
1515 Scarlet Greek Tulip
This tulip’s narrow, silvery foliage looks like a silver starfish on the ground, but the leaves gradually disappear under the constantly expanding stems of bright red flowers with sharp tips and attractively contrasting black centers.
1616 Yellow Juno Iris
The Juno has leafy stems that look like miniature cornstalks with irises pinned into their bases. These come in an astonishing color range, but the one to begin with is the bright yellow and cream-colored Iris bucharica. It’s named for Bukhara in Uzbekistan, and brings some of the steppes’ exotic beauty to the garden.
1717 Tall Blue Camas
A camas meadow in full bloom is breathtaking—thick with color like the blue of the sea. Although the smaller common camas is more frequent in the Rockies (but not in Colorado; the closest it gets is near the Utah border), I find the taller C. leichtlinii from the Pacific Northwest a striking plant. If you ever get desperate, you can eat its bulbs. These plants were a major carbohydrate source for Native Americans, especially the Nez Perce, whose last great military campaign under Chief Joseph was to protect the sacred camas fields from being plowed by farmers.