Gardeners live in the future. The results of our efforts are sometimes weeks and months and years ahead. It must be the joy of the process that sustains us in the meantime and the promise of possibility.
When you tend a garden like Stonecrop, that process is multiplied and intensified. Barbara Scoma has been “doing bulbs” at the 15-acre nonprofit garden on Route 301 in Philipstown for 22 years. She orders the bulbs, reseeds them, bags them up, gets them ready and helps with planting.
The scope of the task has shifted. Years ago, when the garden was being established, Scoma would have ordered 45,000 bulbs for a season; today it is closer to 22,000. For scope, I will be planting a few dozen in my yard.
Here, Scoma shares some bulb basics.
Is there a system for knowing how deep to plant a bulb?
It depends on the bulb and soil, but it’s usually double or triple the length. Follow the instructions on the package for best results.
Will it grow if it’s put into the hole with the root facing up?
With small bulbs and tubers, it may be hard to tell where the roots are. Some will eventually still grow out, but something like an allium won’t.
What are some of the best ways to plant bulbs? I’ve tried specialty tools and didn’t think they worked. But maybe I’m using them wrong.
It depends on the soil. The flower gardens are lovely because the soil is like butter and in the gravel garden we use a trowel or knife. For small-bulb planting in a large grouping, we scalp the lawn and make a lid. Dig, place the bulbs, replace the soil and tamp it down. In a bed, place the bulbs out and dig them in with a trowel. We don’t use an augur.
What is the difference between hardy and tender bulbs?
Hardy bulbs can stay in the ground and come up the next year. They include narcissus, tulips and small bulbs like crocus. You have to dig up tender bulbs such as clivia, colocasia and mirabilis in the fall before they freeze. Store them over the winter and plant again in spring.
Are there ways to deter wildlife from taking your bulbs?
We don’t do anything in particular to keep them out. We wait for temperatures to be cool enough, but it’s getting more difficult because we don’t have deep winters like we did in the past. If we find things get shifted, we blame it on chipmunks and squirrels. There are bulb cages that look like a suet basket available to protect them. Tulips are frustrating because the deer love them.
Why should you leave the foliage after the plants bloom?
Photosynthesis happens. The plants need that to build the food storage to come back next year. We deadhead daffodils, for example, and leave them for another six weeks.
What is curing and how do you store bulbs?
For example, we take dahlias and cannas in for the winter. We dig them up and clean the bulbs. Then we leave them in a fairly dry medium in a plastic pot. They are stored stacked on top of each other in cubbies covered in burlap to keep the light out in a cool environment. They overwinter well. A garage or basement could work. You want them cool but not frozen.
What are some favorite bulbs at Stonecrop?
We plant bulbs by color in the flower garden. There are narcissus in the lawn by type of bulb planted in clumps. They are sold as a blend. You get a group of bulbs that are a variety of heights and bloom times. There are native bulbs in the car park, including camassia and erythronium (trout lily) and some daffodils. In the flower garden, we have a little bit of everything, including muscari and daffodils and summer blooming bulbs, including dahlias and canna lilies.
Any other key points?
Plant 100 to 200 to make a big sweep. Record and map what you planted and be precise so you don’t forget. Take photos, too. Keep adding bulbs every year because they won’t last forever.