Still time to plant those ticking time bombs of hope

Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ bulbs look like little brown bombs until they go off in early May with narrow blue-green leaves and delicate pink-flared petals. Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ bulbs look like little brown bombs until they go off in early May with narrow blue-green leaves and delicate pink-flared petals.

Now that we’ve had a killing frost, not to mention a super storm and slushy nor’easter, the garden is finally shutting itself down, and my days of feeling guilty for not accomplishing as much as I’d wish I had are coming to an end.

Whatever didn’t get divided and transplanted might just wait for spring now. But I’ll keep feeling guilty about not planting bulbs. And I’ll definitely kick myself come spring if I don’t plant a few because unlike transplanting the daisies, it really can’t be postponed until then. That said, the window of opportunity is still wide open. As long as the ground isn’t frozen solid and we’re still months away from March, there’s time.

I’m deeply conflicted about that because I don’t enjoy planting bulbs, which is strange considering how easy it is compared to transplanting a shrub or dividing a perennial. They’re such self-contained, efficient little things — just tiny ticking time bombs of hope. To light their fuse all they need is to be tucked into a deep slot of earth, down two to three times as deep as they are wide around the middle. Easy, right? Not if your soil is as stony as mine or if you’re trying to get them as close as possible to shrubs and perennials in an effort to avoid digging them back up again when you go to plant something else in June.

I usually get down on all fours with my Japanese digging knife (hori-hori). It’s sharp enough to slide between rocks and roots and only as wide as the average tulip bomb. I make a stab or two to loosen the soil a bit and while the hori-hori is still buried to the handle, I shove the bulb in, pointy side up, along the steel to the bottom, cave the soil back in as I pull the blade back out and move on to the next stab. I know a gardener who uses a pointed seed-planting tool — a dibble — for planting small bulbs. She punches holes, drops a bulb down and fills in after it with compost. That’s brilliant, even if hauling a tub of compost around the garden seems more effortful than appealing.

Part of me wants to plant small bulbs enough to follow through. Things like crocus, winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa forbesii) and grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) don’t need to be planted very deeply. I also love that they carpet the ground floor of spring in the colors of sun and sky, and naturalize freely. Maybe a little too freely in the case of grape hyacinth, but that just means there’s no need to replant next year unless I decide I need them somewhere else, too (in which case I would probably opt to scatter their seeds or transplant patches of bulbils in spring). As much as I love seeing tulips in the garden and miss them when they disappear, they do diminish after a couple-three years and I have to wrestle with the will I/won’t I bulb-planting guilt all over again.

Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ bulbs look like little brown bombs until they go off in early May with narrow blue-green leaves and delicate pink-flared petals.

I shouldn’t generalize because not all tulips die out. Tulipa clusiana ‘Lady Jane’ for one, whose bulbs really do look like little brown bombs at least until they go off in early May with narrow blue-green leaves and exquisitely delicate pink-flared petals, is a species variety. Species tulips should last longer in the garden and even increase, unless squirrels eat the bulbs. Cross your fingers that this year there are enough acorns to go around. Otherwise, try pinning chicken wire over your planting sites or spicing the soil up every so often with a dash of red-hot chili flakes.

This is good — thanks for listening. I have just about talked myself into planting a few time bombs before tucking myself in for winter hibernation. The only thing that could hold me back now is availability. I wasn’t on the ball back in July when the catalogs arrived, so I’ll hope that the local nurseries haven’t sold out of crocus yet. But if they have, I could always console myself with forcing amaryllis grenades inside instead.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol, where she’s worked since 2003. Follow her garden blog at http://blog.blithewold.org.

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