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Archive for Thursday, February 16, 2006

Spring fling

Bulbs rear heads, even during cold snaps

February 16, 2006

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It's rare to spot bright, happy colors in the dull, gray landscape of winter. But around this time of year, pleasant surprises start popping up around Lawrence in the form of brilliant yellow, purple and pink flowers.

It's an annual rite of passage, spotting a little crocus peeking its head up to remind us that the lazy days of winter soon will be overtaken by busy outdoor work and the promise of a season of rebirth.

Spring-flowering bulbs are one of my favorite floras, and I don't think any gardener has a reasonable excuse not to plant them every autumn. For one, they're very inexpensive. They're also easy to plant, and they usher in spring like a chorus of sopranos following the lead of their conductor: the sun. Nothing says the worst of winter has passed like a group of daffodils in full, glorious bloom.

There are a bevy of spring-flowering bulbs from which to choose. The flower shapes are endless, and the colors are as varied as a rainbow. Some smell fragrant, and some don't. Others grow tall, while some hang out low to the ground.

But they all introduce a promising new season.

Crocus

"It is just amazing that something so beautiful can burst forth, many times through the snow and freezing conditions," says John McCaffrey, owner of Bittersweet Garden & Floral Design, 514 E. Ninth St. "Crocuses are like the foreshadowing of what's to unfold before our world."

Despite its role as a beacon of winter's end, the crocus often can be overlooked.

This small delicate flower, which generally stands no more than a few inches from the earth with goblet-shaped blooms in shades of purple, pink and white, is a must in any garden. They don't take up much space, and they bloom when we're hungriest for flowers. The crocus multiplies quickly, and the foliage disappears into the earth when the flower is spent.

"One of the prettiest displays of spring bulbs that I have ever seen is a crocus 'lawn' in Greenwich, Connecticut, where I am currently designing a residential garden," says Reed Dillon, president of the Lawrence landscaping firm Reed Dillon & Associates. "There are probably 12,000 crocuses - purple, white and yellow - planted in the lawn surrounding an old church. These cover an area approximately 20 feet by 100 feet on a south-facing slope.

"When the sun comes out and illuminates these flowers, it is really spectacular. I am going to try this, albeit on a smaller scale, this fall."

Daffodil

Crystal Miles, horticultural manager for the city of Lawrence, is a big admirer of the early blooming Marieke daffodil, which means "little star."

"I believe my favorite first colors of spring are yellow daffodils with the dark green foliage," she says.

Daffodils, narcissi, jonquils and paper-whites are variants of the same species and are all members of the genus narcissus. The daffodil comes in an array of shapes, from trumpet, large-cupped, double-cupped and small-cupped. They can stand as tall as 18 inches, or you can plant petite miniature types that fit perfectly in the hand of an infant.

Known as the "poet's flower," these beauties come in a slew of colors, including apricot, white, yellow, orange and even pink. A daffodil's face will follow the sun from east to west as the day progresses. They bloom early in the spring, are easy to grow and will multiply in number. Be sure to let the daffodils foliage yellow and fade before cutting because the bulb will need all the nutrients the foliage has to offer to perform well the following year.

The flower has sentimental meaning for master gardener Pat Lechtenberg.

"I gave several hundreds of dollars worth of daffodil bulbs to friends to plant as a memorial to my parents the year they died," she says. "I knew it was more than I could plant myself, and the daffodils would be growing in lots of places I would see on a regular basis and would remind me of my folks."

Hyacinth

You can spot a hyacinth in bloom with your eyes closed: The heavenly scent of one flower - which is sweet, heady, floral and extremely pungent - can fill an entire room. The hyacinth is an early bloomer and will appear in succession with the crocus, making them a terrific companion to other spring bulbs. They don't multiply and should be replenished about every three years.

It's a great idea to plant the hyacinth to plant hyacinths near a well-traveled path or by a window so the scent can truly be appreciated. They stand very stiff on a plump stem, their leaves a thick sword shape with fluffy flowers that can be quite weighty, leaving them susceptible to blowing over on a windy spring day. Some gardeners stake their hyacinths.

The flower's traditional color is blue, but they also come in pinks, yellows, purples and white. They also have a multitude of petal patterns, including double, single and striped.

One word of warning: You should wear gloves when planting these beauties in autumn. The bulbs have tiny barbs on the outer layer that may irritate human skin. After the hyacinth blooms have faded, let the foliage die off naturally, allowing the bulb to store precious nutrients for next year.

Tulip

Ah, the tulip. This magnificent flower ranges from 6 to 30 inches high and can bear blooms the size of a coffee mug. Because the tulip has early-, middle- and late-blooming varieties, the correct plan could yield a show of colorful blooms for months on end. Tulip petals can be lily-shaped, soft and rounded, fringed (parrot tulips), double or single. The color choices are only as narrow as your imagination.

Tulips are immensely popular around the world. Many people associate the tulip with Holland, but in fact the tulip originated in Turkey and derived its name from the Turkish word for turban.

I planted more than 200 tulip bulbs throughout my yard this year and will continue to replenish them (they generally last four seasons).

Reed Dillon has an inventive way to plant a large amount of bulbs. I only wish I had known this information this fall as I was hunched over my sad, little spade.

His advice: "When planting large numbers of bulbs, I use a heavy-duty drill (not a household drill) outfitted with an auger bit. The auger bit digs the perfect-size hole for tulips or daffodils, and it isn't necessary to excavate an entire bed. Two people can plant a couple hundred bulbs in an afternoon using this system."

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