Early Bulbs Start Even Earlier

Daffodils for next spring start now.

Crocus, daffodil and narcissus are among the earliest of the popular early bulbs to bloom at the end of winter. Hyacinth, tulip, freesia, anemone, ranunculus and some types of iris bloom shortly afterward. That process should begin in February or so, about five months from now. Early bulbs are seasonable now though. This is when they go into the garden.

Early bulbs, or spring bulbs, take commitment. While dormant, they are not much to look at. There is less to look at after their internment into shallow graves, where they disperse their roots secretly through winter. They will not make an appearance until they bloom in spring. Fortunately, their performance is more than adequate compensation for the effort.

Early bulbs go into the garden now because they take time to get ready for spring bloom. While dispersing roots, they also begin to develop foliage and floral stems. Such growth remains safe and invisible below the surface of the soil until the weather is warm enough for it to emerge. Until then, chilly and rainy weather helps bulbs adhere to their schedule. 

Whether they are true ‘bulbs’, or they are corms, rhizomes, tubers or tuberous roots, early bulbs are specialized storage structures. They contain what the particular plants need to grow to maturity and bloom within their preferred season. They should resume dormancy afterward, to repeat the process as perennials. However, few modern cultivars will do so. 

Realistically, extensive breeding for the development of the more extravagant of modern early bulbs has compromised their vigor. Consequently, some are not reliably perennial. Some simpler crocus, daffodils and narcissus can naturalize as perennial in comfortable situations. Otherwise, more of the later bulbs, like canna, cala and dahlia, are perennial.

Whether they naturalize or not, most early bulbs bloom just once annually. Planting them in phases prolongs bloom. Ideally, a subsequent phase begins to bloom as its preceding phase finishes. The length of bloom determines the frequency of phases. For example, if tulips bloom for a week, phases can be weekly. Winter annuals cover nicely when done.

Grape Hyacinth

Grape hyacinth is very reliably perennial.

Are they reliably perennial or invasive? In ideal situations, old fashioned grape hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum, can get a bit too eager to proliferate and migrate. Not only do their bulbs divide efficiently, but their seed disperse beyond bulb colonies. However, bulbs do not migrate too rapidly for containment. Thorough deadheading inhibits seed dispersion.

Grape hyacinth provides some of the earliest spring bloom. Floral spikes of tiny rounded flowers do not get much more than six inches tall, but are delightfully abundant. The rich blue color is exquisite. Hybrids and other species can bloom with pale pink, pale purple, white, yellow, or various shades or tints of blue. The grassy foliage is somewhat rubbery.

If they do not migrate efficiently enough, established colonies of grape hyacinth are easy to divide in autumn. Of course, it will be necessary to mark their locations as their foliage dies back at the end of spring. Division is easier and faster than growing new plants from seed. If hybrids produce seed at all, it may not be viable. If it is, it may not be true to type.

Deadheading Spring Bulbs Conserves Resources

What happens when daffodils finish blooming?

Now that the various spring bulbs have finished blooming, or will soon, many will benefit from deadheading. The techniques are simple, and actually benefit many plants besides spring bulbs. In the most basic terms, deadheading is merely the removal of deteriorating flowers after bloom. Ideally, it should happen prior to the development of seed structures.

A most obvious advantage of deadheading is that it eliminates unappealing carcasses of finished flowers. This neatens the appearance of remaining foliage. The foliage of some spring bulbs shrivels soon after bloom, but remains intact through the process, to sustain development of new bulbs. It is easier to ignore without prominently shabby floral stalks.

Deadheading also conserves and redirects resources that would otherwise sustain seed production. Such resources can instead promote vegetative growth, including production of new bulbs to replace the old. Furthermore, depriving bulbs of seed provides an added incentive for vegetative regeneration. If unable to survive by one means, they try another.

Some bulbs are more reliant on deadheading than others. Grape hyacinth and snowdrop are too profuse with bloom for minor seed production to inhibit their performance. In fact, they produce viable and genetically stable seed, which could be an advantage if more of the same are desirable. Although seed production is limited, seed disperses extensively.

Dutch crocus are an example of sterile hybrids that are unable to produce viable seed, or waste associated resources on such efforts. Other extensively bred bulbs that are not so sterile may not be true to type. Consequently, their progeny are likely to be very different. Freesia do not require deadheading, but can produce feral seedlings with insipid bloom.

Lily, narcissus, daffodil, tulip and hyacinth are some of the popular spring bulbs that now are ready for deadheading. Summer bulbs and perennials will get their turn later. Canna, dahlia and perennials that continue to bloom through summer will be tidier, and perhaps bloom more abundantly with efficient deadheading. They need not wait until next year to express their gratitude.

Snowflake

Snowflake might be mistaken for snowdrop.

Some of us here on the West Coast know it incorrectly as ‘snowdrop’. That is actually the common name of the many cultivars of Galanthus that are so very popular in other regions. ‘Snowflake’ is the correct common name for Leucojum aestivum. Of course, most of us accept either name. The real snowdrop is not so popular here anyway. It blooms better with more chill than it gets locally.

Snowflake does not seem to need much chill at all. It performs so reliably here that it can slowly spread. A few may even self sow in damp situations. Leucojum vernum is another snowflake, with single or paired flowers instead of three or more on each arching stem. Leucojum vernum blooms before Leucojum aestivum. Both are supposed to bloom later in spring, but are in bloom now.

The somewhat rubbery foliage of snowflake resembles that of daffodil, but is a bit darker green. Individual leaves are about a foot tall and an inch wide, and stand rather vertically. Floral stems do not get much higher, but lean slightly outward with the weight of bloom. Their individual flowers are quite small and pendulous, with single yellowish or green dots near the tips of each of six tepals.

Daffodil

Bright yellow daffodil is still classic.

What is the difference between narcissus and daffodil? That is very open to interpretation. Daffodil is really only a particular type of narcissus that tends to bloom with larger and more colorful flowers that lack the rich fragrance of the smaller and commonly white flowers of other narcissus. Most daffodil bloom singly. Only a few bloom with a few flowers together. Other narcissus are outfitted with more individual flowers to each stem.

When they were buried in sunny spots last autumn, bare daffodil bulbs looked like pointed onions. They rested through much of winter so that they could be among the first flowers to bloom late in winter. The rather short and narrow bluish leaves stand vertically. The flaring flowers face outward with a bit of a downward or upward tilt. After bloom, deteriorating flowers should be plucked, but foliage should remain until it yellows and gets shed naturally.

The most familiar daffodil are bright yellow. Others can be white, various shades of orange or yellow, or a combination of these colors. Six outer petals (which are actually three petals and three sepals) radiate around a central trumpet.

Summer Bulbs After Spring Bulbs

Summer bulbs start late in winter.

It was easy to bury spring bulbs so discourteously in shallow graves last autumn. None of them got proper funerals. Perhaps cool season annuals obscured their interment sites. No one needed to know they were there. It seemed like a perfect crime, until now. They are back like the undead. After all, they were not dead when interred. They were merely dormant, and likely plump and healthy.

Crocus, snowdrop, narcissus and some of the other related daffodil might already be blooming. Otherwise, their foliage is emerging above the soil. They do not necessarily wait for the soil to get warmer later in winter. Hyacinth and tulip will bloom a bit later. Delayed planting delays bloom, but only for the first season. Established spring bulbs from previous seasons will bloom as they like.

Spring bulbs, including corms, rhizomes, tubers and tuberous roots, prefer early interment for a reason. They appreciate a good chill through winter. Although most get refrigerated artificially prior to sale, they certainly do not mind a bit more chill. Besides, they also appreciate early root dispersion, even while still dormant. They prefer to bloom early, but unfortunately, also finish bloom early.

Summer bulbs are very different. They go into the garden later because they do not require chill. Furthermore, many types are sensitive to minor frost if they begin to grow too early in winter. Since they start growth later than spring bulbs, summer bulbs generally bloom later. However, some bloom for extensive seasons. A few summer bulbs bloom from early summer until frost in late autumn.

Dahlia, canna and old fashioned white calla are the more reliable of summer bulbs to plant now. Old fashioned white calla may be rare in nurseries. Smaller, more colorful, but less vigorous callas are more popular. Such summer bulbs are more sustainable than spring bulbs, and can perform for many years. Gladiolus and various lily are spectacular summer bulbs, but bloom once annually.

Incidentally, unlike the spring bulbs, most summer bulbs are actually corms, rhizomes, tubers or tuberous roots.

These Bulbs Are Not Incandescent

Bulbs do not look too impressive.

It may seem to be too early to be concerned with narcissus, daffodil and grape hyacinth, but this is when their bulbs go into the garden. Once established, these familiar examples, as well as early bearded iris, can be the most reliable for colorful bloom at about the same time early each spring. Crocus and freesia bloom just as early, but may not naturalize as reliably. Lily, tulip, hyacinth, anemone and ranunculus really prefer cooler winters to bloom reliably after their first spring, even though they are worth growing for just one season.

Bulbs, including corms, rhizomes, tubers and tuberous roots, can be found in nurseries when it is time for them to be planted. Gladiolus are not yet available only because they are summer blooming bulbs that should be planted a bit later than spring bulbs. None of the bulbs are much to look at while dormant, and are even less impressive once they get buried out of sight, but they have already stored up everything they need for the blooms that we expect from them next year. Once hidden below the surface of the soil, seemingly dormant bulbs secretly disperse their roots into the surrounding cool and moist soil to be ready to bloom as soon as weather allows.

In their first year, some bulbs can be planted in groups at different times to coincide with the expected durations of their particular bloom cycles. For example, if the flowers of a particular type of bulb can be expected to last two weeks, a second phase of the same bulbs can be planted two weeks after the first phase. As the first phase finishes bloom next spring, the second phase should begin bloom. However, phasing is only effective for the first season, since all bulbs of any particular variety will be synchronized by their second season.

Anemone, ranunculus and bearded iris each bloom synchronously, regardless of when they get planted, so are immune to phasing. Fortunately, the many varieties of bearded iris have different bloom seasons. Some bloom as early as narcissus. Mid-season varieties bloom shortly afterward, and are followed by late varieties. Some modern varieties bloom early, and then again after the late varieties!

Spring Bulbs Begin In Autumn

Spring bulbs bloom months from now.

Spring bulbs lack immediate gratification. They will, of course, justify their habitation of the garden as they bloom next spring. For now, they are not much to look at, and do not stay visible for long. While dormant, they poses neither foliage nor significant roots. Most look something like small and disfigured onions. Burial in shallow graves conceals their uninteresting exteriors through winter.

Cool season bedding plants can effectively obscure the otherwise bare soil over the grave sites of some types of bulbs. Mulch might be best for those that should start to grow immediately or that will develop an abundance of foliage. While plants above them may need watering until the rainy season begins, dormant spring bulbs need no more attention. They disperse roots through winter.

Spring bulbs, including corms, rhizomes, tubers and tuberous roots, are oblivious to the discomforts of transplant while dormant. However, they want to wake from their dormancy in situations that are conducive to normal development and bloom. Some prefer shallow planting. Others require significant depth for stability. Most but not all spring bulbs perform best in small groups or colonies.

Narcissus, daffodil and crocus are the first spring bulbs to bloom as winter ends, or even earlier. Tulip, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, freesia, anemone, ranunculus and some types of iris bloom shortly afterward. Late iris, lily and montbretia bloom later, and some types are considered to be summer bulbs. Spring bulbs become available in nurseries while seasonable. Summer bulbs arrive later.

Most spring bulbs bloom only once. Plaiting them in phases a few weeks apart within their respective seasons can prolong bloom. Each subsequent phase begins bloom as the preceding phase finishes. However, narcissus, daffodil, grape hyacinth and others that can naturalize will bloom simultaneously after their first season. Most spring bulbs unfortunately do not naturalize reliably here.

Gladiolus and allium are summer bulbs that bloom once. Calla, canna and dahlia bloom through summer.

Bugle Lily

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Bugle lilies are like lean gladioli.

It would be accurate to guess that bugle lily, Watsonia pyramidata, is related to gladiola. It is not as impressive as gladiola is, but it is much more reliable. The relatively simple blooms become more abundant as bulbs multiply each year. Conversely, after blooming so flamboyantly in their first year, only a few gladiola bloom for a second year.

New bugle lily bulbs (corms) that were planted early last autumn grew through winter to bloom about now, in white and pastel hues of pink, rosy pink, lavender, orange and almost red. The small flowers are neatly arranged on narrow floral spikes that stand about three or four feet tall. The upright and narrow leaves get only about two or three feet tall.

After bloom, foliage slowly browns through warming summer weather, so should be cut to the ground when it becomes unsightly. While bulbs are dormant through summer, they do not need to be watered much, and can rot if soil stays too damp. Crowded colonies of bulbs can be divided and spread around as summer ends.

Deadhead To Eliminate Fading Bloom

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Deadhead finished daffodils to conserve resources.

The need to deadhead so early in spring is one of the few minor consequences of spring bulbs. Long before it becomes necessary to deadhead zinnia, canna and rose, the first flowers to bloom as winter ends are already finished. Many are those of spring bulbs. Their lingering deteriorating bloom can be slightly unappealing. What is more of a concern, is that some will likely try to go to seed.

The process of producing unwanted seed consumes resources that could otherwise sustain more useful growth. However, for spring bulbs that have finished blooming, production of seed for a new generation is more important than their own survival. That is why it is helpful to deadhead bulbs and many other plants after bloom. If deprived of seed production, they divert resources elsewhere.

Deadheaded narcissus, daffodil, freesia, lily and tulip store more resources into new bulbs, which they generate to bloom next year. Snowdrop and grape hyacinth cultivars that get deadheaded are not likely to get overwhelmed by their own feral seedlings. (It is neither practical nor necessary to deadhead crocus or big naturalized colonies of snowflake, feral snowdrop or feral grape hyacinth.)

While it is important to deadhead most spring bulbs after bloom, it is also important to not remove deteriorating foliage prematurely. After all, the foliage produces the resources that are necessary to generate healthy new bulbs for next year. Such foliage starts to slowly deteriorate immediately after bloom, but may linger for many months. Bulbs will shed their foliage when they no longer need it.

Until then, bedding plants or low perennials can obscure deteriorating bulb foliage as it falls over. Trailing gazania and dwarf periwinkle work nicely for shorter bulbs. If they get shorn low for winter, trailing plumbago, common periwinkle and African daisy can work nicely for taller bulbs.