Gardeners have vision. All gardeners, not just the ones we admire and envy. You, me, the neighbour next door. What else would you call it when an ordinary person buys a bag of bulbs in the fall, buries them in the ground, and believes they will produce amazing blooms in 7 or 8 months?
The garden centres will have an abundance of bulbs in stock soon and your biggest decision is what to choose. There are literally thousands of bulbs on the shelves and most of us have limited garden space. The most common hardy spring-flowering bulbs for a Calgary garden are tulip, narcissus/daffodil, allium, iris, crocus, grape hyacinth and squill. The last three are petite and bloom early in the spring, the others show up later, and the irises finish their display in June. Technically, iris grows from a rhizome, but you can treat it like a bulb when planting in the fall. In addition to this list, you can find many more exotic bulbs, just don’t expect them to return year after year in our climate.
There are two kinds of tulips that survive here: species (or native) and hybridized. The species tulips should spread into established colonies, returning every year. The large hybrids are more showy and popular with gardeners, but often are best only their first year. My wonderful show of huge pink tulips a few years ago has never been repeated and I fondly remember them as annuals.
If you wish to have a show of continuous color throughout the spring (of course you do) read the labels carefully, and choose from early, mid and late spring varieties. Then check the labels again for height, as they come in 6” all the way to 28” sizes. How silly to put the tall ones in the front and the short ones behind out of sight. Then there are singles, doubles, lily-flowered, fringed and parrot types, to mention only a few. There are actually 15 divisions of tulip classifications, so it is no wonder the casual gardener gets a bit bewildered. Alliums, likewise, have many varieties, and provide colour between tulips and daffodils and later blooming summer flowers.
Bulbs of all varieties look best in mass plantings of solid colors or two complementary colors. No nice tidy rows, please, unless they are being used for cut flowers; a block of color has far more impact. What colors you choose is strictly personal – plant what looks beautiful to your eye. A sunny spot is best, although some varieties are forgiving and will bloom later in partial shade. Because they are among the earliest color in our Chinook gardens, tulips partner nicely with other bulbs like Muscari (Grape Hyacinth), Scilla (Squill) and dwarf Narcissus.
Get your bulbs in the ground in Sept or October; they need some time to root before the ground freezes. If you share your garden with squirrels, cover the new planting with wire mesh secured by stakes or rocks to keep those little paws from digging them up. Squirrels are particularly fond of tulip bulbs. And while you are at it, be sure to add some new ones in your front yard for the pleasure of your friends and neighbours.