There are two times of year when gardeners start thinking ahead (other than when daydreaming about the day they can afford to hire someone to do the tasks they do not like). The first arrives in January — traditionally through the United States Post Office but now more frequently with enticing e-blasts – when the seed catalogues start showing up. The second time, oddly, happens in early summer when bulb catalogs arrive and lure us into dreaming of cooler weather – of the fall when spring bulbs need to be planted, and of the spring when they will flower. This year, with the heat making me think that the Berkshires are too tropical and that I should move north to coastal Maine or west to Seattle (where record highs have been hit as well), all I can think of are bulbs and the cooler weather that I associate with them. (Do heat-loving gardeners dream of bulbs too? I cannot tell you.) It also might be that I am in a new garden and bulbs somehow seem like the first thing one dreams of as they, along with witch hazels, daphnes, and the overused bright yellow forsythia, represent the opening of the gardening season to Northeasterners like me.
So, in I go each afternoon, out of the heat and away from the unrelenting weeding that I never finish, to dream of what the spring will be. And as I amass a list of daffodils, grape hyacinths, and squill that I hope to order, my inner acquisitor emerges. Bulbs bring out a gardener’s greed, and they should, as they look best in great numbers (although there are new approaches to planting bulbs that allow one to be a little more minimalist and budget-minded while still getting the effect one wants from them, but more on this another time, catalog viewing is not a moment for parsimony.)
As I develop my list, or crazily circle a new tulip or daffodil listing with a black Sharpie, I think of all of the things that I tend to ignore when I read a bulb catalog. The biggest oversight, and one that great plant people surely pay attention to, is bloom time. With tulips and daffodils, there are early, mid, and late season varieties, which, unless we have a burst of 90-degree weather in April or May, should expand the season of these coveted genera over several months. Sadly, all daffodils that I select tend to be late bloomers, but this year I am determined to include a section on my bulb list that monitors bloom time. Maybe then I can stop resenting the early blooms I see in Sharon Casdin’s garden down the road, already awash in sunny yellows when my bulbs are only just showing their linear green foliage. Nothing is better than to bring in buckets of daffodils to fill the house in spring. I want to be able to do that for as long of a season as possible.
While I love the minor bulbs – snowdrops, squill, hyacinths and the like — this year I believe I will focus on the showstoppers (be prepared to read later that I did not) – tulips and daffodils. At my old house, I had a long woodland edge that was planted with thousands of daffodils, all of them lacking the one color associated with daffodils – yellow. For some reason, I decided I wanted to have daffodils that had orange, pink and green cups – sort of a Lilly Pulitzer mix if you will, that was softened by the white of their recurved petals. I still like that mix, but as I drove by the Casdin residence this past spring and saw the sea of sunny yellow that fills her woodland and the lawn in front of the house, I came to believe that if there is a moment for the boldest and most strident of yellows (generally I tend to prefer the butter yellows of designer Nancy Lancaster and Scabiosa ochroleuca, best represented in bulbs by the soft yellow cups of the sweetly fragrant Narcissus ‘Avalanche’) it is spring. It is time for me to find a place for such yellows, heck, maybe even some forsythia. And just think of the vulgar reds, yellows and pinks to enliven the season that await me on the tulip pages.
But alas, I dig deeper into the catalogues (Scheepers, Colorblends, and Brent and Becky’s are my favorite bulb porn) and find myself drawn to the usual suspects – waspy white triandrus daffodils whose petals seem to be pushed back by spring winds, the small bold green of the cup of ‘Sinopel’ (is the color real or a product of photoshop?), orange-cupped ‘Barrett Browning’ that makes me wonder if the poet wrote How do I Love Thee about geophytes or about her husband Robert. (For me, it would be the former and I can definitely count the ways). I look down at my list and see that ‘Salome,’ ‘Misty Glen,’ ‘Candy Princess,’ and the lovely ‘Katie Heath’ top my lists and realize that once again, I will be driving by the Casdin residence hoping to expand my range next year. Such is the life of a stubborn old gardener who never even managed to make it to the tulip pages.
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.