By Kathy Conner Cornell
VCE Southside Master Gardener
One of spring’s beauty is the bright faces of flowering spring bulbs. It is not too late to plant spring bulbs. However, shipping dates will end soon so best to order right away. I might note that I did see bulbs for sale in the grocery store last week. Bulbs need a chilling period therefore the importance of planting in the fall.
The most common spring bulb is likely the daffodil, Narcissus, known as buttercups in these parts. Some gardeners feel that yellow screams in the garden which makes me want to say Give me a break! I feel their bright yellow faces bring cheer. If you share the former feeling, not to worry, there are plenty of daffodils in whites and pinks. Daffodils require full sun and in my experience aren’t that picky about soil. Good drainage is required. One important thing to remember is that daffodils, as with all bulbs, need the foliage to remain until completely brown. Leaving the foliage feeds the bulbs so that it will bloom again next year. No need to deadhead, remove the spent flowers. If seed heads appear that just means you’ll have surprise blooms next year.
This Pink Ribbon daffodil brings spring color to the garden. Try some bulbs for early spring color that returns year after year.
Another popular bulb is the tulip, Tulipa. It is often said that tulips should be treated as annuals in the southeast. This breaks my heart since I am a fan of plants that come back year after year. Generally, our winters are not cold enough to support reblooming. According to South Carolina Extension “Single Late Tulips… are one of the best groups for growing in warm climates. They have long-strong stems with deep, cup-shaped blooms in a wide range of colors. They grow between 14 and 30 inches tall. This group includes tulips formerly classified as Darwins and cottage tulips. Recommended cultivars include ‘Halcro’ (vibrant red); ‘Queen of Night’ (deep dark maroon); ‘Renown’ (rose-pink); ‘Menton’ (apricot-pink with inside of poppy red); ‘Maureen’ (pure white); ‘Makeup’ (ivory white with red edge); ‘Temple of Beauty’ salmon-rose); and ‘Hocus Pocus'(yellow-tipped pink)”. It is also a good practice to remove the spent flowers, just the flowers not the leaves, so the plant can put all of its energy into feeding the bulb. It is important to note that the biggest enemy to tulips is poorly drained soil. For example, The Southern Virginia Botanical Garden in South Boston lost all their tulips because of ‘drowning’ three years ago. The closer you can get to 7.0 pH, the better off you are for the tall stems and full flowering of tulips. Tulips do better in Virginia east of I95 but try the above cultivars and make sure the soil drains well and hopefully the tulips will return next spring.
Hyacinths, Hyacinthus orientalis, just smell wonderful. According to Missouri Extension “Both Homer and Virgil made note of its sweet fragrance in their writings”. It has been hybridized for larger and fuller flower spikes. Hyacinths are available in blue, purple, white, pink and red. Southern Living Magazine warns that “Hyacinth bulbs can cause skin irritation. The plant's bulbs are partly composed of calcium oxalate crystals, which act like barbs that are invisible to the eye. They can cause microscopic breaks in the skin and cause itching and irritation, so be sure to wear gloves or wash your hands thoroughly after handling bulbs and before touching your skin, face, or eyes”.
One of the earliest bulbs to flower are crocuses. South Carolina Extension says that “Excellent crocus for growing … include: Cloth of Gold Crocus (C. angustifolius), Snow Crocus (C. chrysanthus), Tommies (C. tommasinianus) and their cultivars”. The larger Dutch crocuses do not naturalize as well as the smaller types.
Then there are the snowdrops or Galanthus. There is almost a cultlike following of these little early flowering gems. According to David Culp, best known for his book “The Layered Garden”, snowdrops look like “three drops of milk hanging from a stem”. The name Galanthus comes from the Greek gala meaning milk and anthos meaning flower. The plant likes part shade and works under deciduous trees, shrubs, rock gardens and at the front of the border. There are 75 species of snowdrops and all of them are white. In “The Layered Garden”, Culp talks about his own collection of Galanthus which is over one hundred. He mentions that when he attended British Galanthus galas and luncheons in late winter, no one took him seriously until he had built up his collection up to fifty. He further states that some species are hard to obtain and that is part of the excitement in trying to find a specimen. On his Galanthus website you may order bulbs, some for as little as $20 each and others for up to $300! Fortunately, you can purchase a bag of common snowdrop bulbs for under $20. Now if you like going to galas and spending hundreds on a little bulb then by all means join the galanthophiles like David Culp. It is wonderful to have a little color in the garden as early as January and that bag of common snowdrop bulbs suits me just fine.
There are some generalities about spring bulbs. They must have a chilling period so need to be planted in the fall. The rule of thumb is to plant two to three times as deep as the diameter of the bulb. The bulbs all need to have their foliage left intact until it turns brown. Please don’t bend over the stems and wrap them with rubber bands. That stands out like a sore thumb and doesn’t allow the nutrients to flow down to the bulb. Most like full sun, snowdrops are an exception but all want well drained soil.
We’ve seen the term Good for Naturalizing on bags of bulbs. I asked what that meant when we studied bulbs in school. My instructor looked at me like I had asked something that everyone knows the answer to, I figured he didn’t know either. Breck and Becky Heath had a blog on their website that explains the answer. “By definition, a naturalized plant is a plant that is not native, but that reseeds, spreads, and attracts pollinators all the same. These plants are not the same as perennials, which return year after year but rarely, if ever, set seed.” In other words, it can play among the established plants and appear natural. Bulbs are great for that. I might add that David Culp suggests that you plant spring bulbs at the back of the flower bed but in front of shrubs. That way the foliage can gracefully brown out while other perennials start to fill in.
While we all are practicing ‘social distancing’ and Halifax County buildings are still closed to the public due to COVID-19, if you have gardening questions, you can best reach an Extension Master Gardener or Extension staff member by sending an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can’t email, you can call and leave a message at the Extension Master Gardener Help Desk at 434-830-3383, giving us your name, telephone number and nature of the call. The Help Desk phone is checked regularly and someone will get back to you, although it may be from a different telephone number. Keep washing your hands, wearing your mask and do try out some bulbs for spring beauty with flowers that return year after year.