Plant them this fall, watch’em bloom next spring
by Sarah Eddy
For a burst of spring color, autumn is the time to dig a hole and drop in a handful—or several—of flower bulbs. With any luck and minimal watering, your bulbs will bloom for years to come. It’s just that easy. Here are three of the best bulb varieties, as suggested by Bob Pennington, owner of Agua Fria Nursery in Santa Fe.
The daffodil is the perfect beginner’s bulb—it’s highly dependable, and while some bulbous flowers tend to dwindle over the years, daffodils often multiply. The sunny, bright yellow daffodil is a classic symbol of spring, but it also grows in shades of orange, white, and even peach.
Besides aesthetic appeal, daffodils have another, more practical use: “If you try to protect your trees from gophers, one of the things you can do is ring your trees with daffodils, because daffodils are highly toxic,” Pennington explains. “If a gopher eats your daffodil, that’s a dead gopher.”
Hyacinths, with their heavy heads clumped with small, star-shaped flowers, provide visual diversity when planted among other flower bulbs mentioned in this roundup. You can find a variety of hyacinth in nearly every hue, including blue, white, pink, orange, purple, lavender, and peach. In addition to their rich, vibrant color, they are also particularly fragrant.
“Hyacinths smell fabulous,” says Pennington. Because each individual bulb does not need room to spread, hyacinths are also great for container planting.
Crocuses tend to have atypical blooming schedules, making them useful for creating year-round color in a landscape. “Crocuses come up very, very early. They tell you spring is coming,” says Pennington. The sight of these hardy little flowers peeking up through late winter snow has traditionally heralded the advent of warmer weather.
Certain varieties of crocus bloom in the autumn, however, a trait rare to flowering bulbs. The saffron crocus, lavender with dark purple stripes and brilliant red-orange anthers, is a favorite of Pennington’s. “There are a whole lot of crocuses that bloom in the fall, but the saffron crocus is probably the best known,” he says. “One of the most expensive plant-derived products on Earth is saffron, ounce per ounce. It costs so much because it’s terribly labor intensive. You have to lie down on your belly and pick those little tiny orange anthers out of the flower one at a time, and then they dry up and they don’t weigh anything. But it’s a fabulous plant and easy to grow; it does beautifully here.”
In the mid-1630s, tulips were so popular in Holland that they triggered a speculative frenzy followed by a market crash. At their peak price, some varieties cost several times more than the average house. Tulips remain as beautiful as ever, but they’re now considerably more accessible to the everyday plant-lover. Some varieties should be replanted each fall while others might return as reliably as the daffodil.
“I have a patch of fringed yellow tulips that have been there since the late 1980s, early ’90s,” Pennington says. Symmetrical petals and brilliant colors make tulips one of the most popular flowers to this day.
Q + A with Bob Pennington – Agua Fria Nursery
Bob, what are the advantages to planting bulbs?
Pretty much what makes all fall bulbs special is that they are uniquely adapted for this environment. They basically only need moisture two times, and that’s in the fall and winter after you plant them, and in early spring when they’re starting their growth. They survive the summer by going dormant and just hiding out. Most of them are from the drier portions of the Mediterranean climate where you get the high elevations, dry summers, fiercely cold winters. They’re underground; they survive the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer. Most only come up in spring—that’s their thing.
Bulbs are magic. A lot of these bulbs will bloom for years and years. You forget things are going to happen, and then they just pop up and do their thing. One of the most important things bulbs do is tell you spring is coming. You’re forgetting all about spring, and you’re tired of winter, and then all of a sudden you’ve got a show of crocuses or hyacinths just singing away.
What’s the standard planting process?
The bulb industry has come up with a new slogan. It’s three words: dig, drop, done. Dig a hole, drop a bulb in, cover it up with dirt and water, and you’re done. In our climate you probably want to water it a little more than that, but bulbs are inherently very drought tolerant. Water a few times in the fall and hope that it snows in the winter. If it never does snow, then you have to water them just like you have to water everything else. Just go out once a month and soak it. When they come up in the spring, again, water just once in a while.
Are there any downsides to planting bulbs?
They’re easy, no question about it, but for the most part you’re only going to get color from maybe February through, at the absolute latest, June, and then you’ve got to plant something else; you have to have other stuff. They don’t care what’s going on in the summer, because they’re dormant. You can plant annuals on top of them, you can plant perennials on top of them—and you should. The last thing you want is bare earth.
Plant as many as you can afford. If you mix different ones, they’ll bloom at different times. The sorriest thing in the world is when somebody comes in and they buy one or two tulips or one or two crocuses, and then they complain come spring because it looks so plain. Well, yeah—you’re supposed to plant a whole drift!
Agua Fria Nursery, aguafrianurserynm.com