oxblood lily
2006-09-10. Despite my many dead-ends in bulb trials, I can always count on the original cast to pull through for me when the going gets tough.

September 8th, 2006
3. First Love–Southern Bulbs

In one of Allen Lacy’s books he recalls how bearded irises awakened his passion for plants as a child. Later he says that he no longer grows bearded irises and explains the reasons for giving them up. I read this when I was in love with bearded irises myself and so I was shocked that anyone could be so fickle.

Now years later with several love affairs under my belt, I can understand better how plant passions rise and wane. Annie in Austin reminds me that I’m not the gardener I was when I began 13 years ago; might I be looking for change? Before I answer, let me look back and recall those first loves, not just for the sake of nostalgia but to see what I can discover about this garden and this gardener.

I inherited a well-established landscape and so I felt no requirement to design a garden. My approach was to tweak and twiddle. I’d look out the window while doing the dishes and watch where the light fell at certain times of the day and think, “What would look good there?”

Beginning in fall the first year my garden revealed its secrets, heirloom bulbs: oxblood lilies, red spider lilies, garlic chives, oxalis, paperwhite narcissus (two kinds), ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils, summer snowflakes, starch hyacinths, bearded iris, and rainlilies. Bulbs appeal to my acquisitive nature. It’s hard to know whether I get more pleasure from watching them bloom or digging them up.

The farthest north I’ve lived in America is Las Vegas so I knew I couldn’t grow the traditional spring bulbs hyped in catalogs and garden books. A friend attended a lecture by Scott Ogden at Barton Springs Nursery and brought me a three page list of “Garden Bulbs for Central Texas”. Excited by the possibilities of bulbs suited to our clime but completely ignorant of any of the bulbs on the list, I bought Scott Ogden’s Garden Bulbs for the South; it was my bible for years.

I felt fortunate to have a yard which already had so many heirloom bulbs. I had a difficult time (in those days before the internet) finding sources for the bulbs I was falling in love with in print. I received a catalog from McClure & Zimmerman. Here, described in straightforward text in pages 3 columns wide, listed alphabetically were all the bulbs I’d ever wanted. (I still prefer their print catalog to their online catalog which I find annoying to navigate.)

Over the years I’ve purchased Acidanthera bicolor, Crocus speciosus ‘Cassiope’ and ‘Conqueror’, Crocus tommasianus, ‘Angelique’ tulips, the daffodils ‘Quail,’ ‘Trevithian’, ‘Jetfire’, ‘Triparite’, and ‘Minnow’ and the Alliums neopolitanum and sphaerocephalon. These all bloomed beautifully and came back for a year or two. But unlike my dream of bulbs naturalizing and my collection growing exponentially, these bulbs decreased year after year and I no longer have any of them. Then there’s the true lilies; I never expected them to survive Texas.

Should I also mention the caladiums, gladiolus, amaryllis, sprekelia, hymenocallis, crinum and canna here? They aren’t completely dead but neither are they thriving.

I did successfully introducing five bulbs: Tulipa clusiana, Hyacinthoides hispanica, Zephyranthes grandiflora, St. Joseph’s Lily, and the diminuitive daffodil ‘Hawera’ (which was packed as a bonus from McClure & Zimmerman.)

So I’m basically back where I started with bulbs. Okay, my oxblood lily collection has expanded from 30 bulbs in the front yard to over 1000 in a special garden made just for them. But when those other bulbs I bought disappeared, I became frustrated with the effort especially since most bulbs bloom only a couple of weeks out of the year. My attention was drawn to more showy flowers and I stopped buying bulbs.

Lesson Learned
Bulbs (rhizomes, tubers, and corms) are my stealth success. They make a big splash in the design only once in awhile. All my bulbs benefit from lifting and dividing. Not all of them require it but the soil they grow in does. Tree roots again. So my dreams of naturalized drifts of species bulbs never materialized.

As I looked over my bulb lists and photos while writing this post, I could feel the old longings stirring. If I reset my expectations and think of bulbs like other short-lived perennials, then I could consider buying bulbs again. I would love to reacquaint myself the daffodil ‘Quail’–it has a luscious orange scent and was the most vigorous of all the daffocils I tried. I think it might have rotted in one of our very wet years rather than withered in one of very dry years.

I’d also like the fall crocuses again. They are very small but they are charming in the buffalograss.

Despite my many dead-ends in bulb trials, I can always count on the original cast to pull through for me when the going gets tough.

If you live in central Texas, I’d love to know what bulbs you’ve grown and which ones failed or succeeded for you and over what period of time. I’m particularly interested in bulbs which have lasted more than 5 years.

If you are looking for a source for southern heirloom bulbs there is a new company in north Texas, The Southern Bulb Co which has been in the news lately. I haven’t ordered from them yet but their catalog has all the tried and true bulbs in my back yard. However, if you live in Austin, I can make you a better deal on oxblood lilies than $9 a bulb.
Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been dividing bulbs the last few weeks, work that is a satisfying as digging up a pot of gold.

October 3rd, 2003
Divide and Multiply

The yard was already 40 years old when I move here and filled with an established lawn, a dozen large cedar elms and many overgrown shrubs. Since there was no immediate need to do anything with it, I simply watched it over a couple of years, learning the names of the plants and thinking about what could be added and where.

In the spring, the ‘Ice Follies’ daffodils and summer snowflakes bloomed. In the early summer, a pale yellow iris. In the worst of summer, white rainlilies bloomed five days after any thunderstorm. And then in the fall, oxblood lilies and red spider lilies appeared overnight. So my first interest was in bulbs. Scott Ogden’. Garden Bulbs for the South was my bible.

After ten years I’m finding that I can’t put my spade to earth without uncovering, and sometimes slicing into, some bulbs. Grape hyacinths, Spanish bluebells, and various alliums produce offsets by the hundreds. They compensate for the tulips, certain daffodils, and true lilies that can’t stand the heat and mucky soils of central Texas.

So I’ve been dividing bulbs the last few weeks, work that is a satisfying as digging up a pot of gold. Like coins in a magic purse, the more I divide the more I have.

The advice I’ve read elsewhere says to divide Lycoris radiata in the spring, after their leaves die down and cautions that they probably won’t bloom the following fall. I find, however, that the best time to divide them is right after they bloom. Their roots are small and the ground is soft, so it’s easy to dig them up without damaging the bulbs, especially since you can see where they are. I soak them in a pail of water and with a little seaweed mix for a few hours. Dividing them in the fall allows them to do all of their growth in a new spot, amended with compost and bulb food and bloom better the following year than those left growing crowded all season.

Ditto Rhodophiala bifida. Whereas Lycoris radiata stops blooming when it gets overcrowded, Rhodophiala bifida doesn’t seem to mind. I divide mine because I can’t get enough of them. Although oxblood lilies bloom tolerably well when left to on their own, they perform outstandingly with a little loving care.

The pink rainlilies are the same. I had been afraid to disturb them. But after digging up one bunch, I discovered that although they continued to bloom like champs, they were really overcrowded. So I’ve dug them all up and now have three times as many as I did at the beginning of summer.