The Self-Taught Gardener: The minor leagues

I have always loved spring blooming bulbs; planting them in the fall and awaiting their arrival in spring is an act of faith for a gardener.

Stockbridge — I have always loved spring blooming bulbs; planting them in the fall and awaiting their arrival in spring is an act of faith for a gardener, and their transformation from gold sheathed bulbs to spring flowers at about the time of Easter seems to fit in perfectly with the story of resurrection for which the Easter holiday is known. And bulbs represent hope to gardeners the way Christ’s second coming represents hope for Christians.

But like anything for which one has a true passion, I was also disturbed by what I perceived as the bastardization of a beloved object. As a child, I remember the arrival of the Dutch bulb catalogs in midsummer, awash in colorful images of red and yellow tulips in borders so floriferous they were almost vulgar — even to a boy of eleven years old. Flamed tulips in red and yellow and endless beds of sulfur yellow daffodils so bright they almost hurt the eyes were at the forefront of these catalogs. It was as if spring needed to come on with a show of strength that could only be managed by flowers in primary colors arranged in rows like soldiers. I knew this was wrong somehow. These varieties were selected as if being chosen to take part in a carefully planned parade, flashy and bold, petticoated and painted, they called to mind the outfits my teenaged sisters would try to wear to school, which my mother would veto before she let them out the door in the morning. It seems that I agreed with my mother’s judgment about such display.

Muscari, or grape hyacinths, can seed themselves around in the garden if conditions are right.
Muscari, or grape hyacinths, can seed themselves around in the garden if conditions are right.

 

But in the back of these same catalogs, my favorite bulbs resided and, like the ads at the back of the New Yorker, they seemed to have a certain cosmopolitan nature – the discretion of their placement in the catalog somehow reflected their humility and quiet charms. Snowdrops, crocus, roman hyacinths and muscari, as well as the brilliant blue squill and elfin reticulate irises, excited me not only because of their delicate flowers, but because they had a seeming fragility that seemed to match the conditions that surrounded them when they entered the world. They peek out at the world with the demeanor of a baby bird, and bear the same combination of grace, beauty and awkwardness that takes our breath away when we stumble upon a nest of baby robins.

And like a nest, these minor bulbs seem to have a natural place in a garden. Set into small groupings in the lawn, clustered along the edge of a foundation, sequestered away near the base of a shrub that will leaf out in the weeks ahead, clusters of starry blue squill not only look like they arose like wildflowers in a meadow, they also tend to seed themselves about in other locations where they will be equally happy and at home, like poppies in a meadow. Snowdrops and grape hyacinths seeded themselves throughout my old garden, surprising me as they showed up in spots where I would never have thought to place them, but areas that would seem missing as if they were something without these self-sown inhabitants.

 

Over the years, Scilla sibirica, commonly known as squill, can self-sow to create sheets of blue flowers in a lawn or low-lying area in the garden that almost give the illusion of sitting water.
Over the years, Scilla sibirica, commonly known as squill, can self-sow to create sheets of blue flowers in a lawn or low-lying area in the garden that almost give the illusion of sitting water.

 

While each fall I order more bulbs and put them into the areas where I remember thinking there was a need for their presence, in the spring I also enjoy planting some of my favorite minor bulbs in another way, by planting them in the green. This past weekend, I moved some of my favorite double snowdrops from a place where they seemed to be happily seeding themselves. With a simple poaching spade, I took a portion of the clump, and set it in a new area of the garden, hoping these little bulbs would be happy with the new home that I selected for them. And as I went to plant the clump in its new home, I took sight of the flowers held above the slightly depleted bulbs showing through the soil that clung to them. I had the pleasure of experiencing the joys that bulbs provide me in both their flowering and their dormant state, depending on the season. For there they were, with their beauty held above the promise of what will be.

Snowdrops often find a place in the garden or lawn where they will prosper and multiply. They can be moved while in the green to new areas of the garden and look great sited near a stone or backdrop that sets off their white and green flowers.
Snowdrops often find a place in the garden or lawn where they will prosper and multiply. They can be moved while in the green to new areas of the garden and look great sited near a stone or backdrop that sets off their white and green flowers.

 

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.