Years ago, when I was just learning to garden in the Mediterranean climate of the Napa Valley, I was vexed by the Algerian ivy planted in a strip between my neighbor’s and my driveway. Before I undertook the hard work of removing such an invasive and tenacious vine, I had to figure out what to plant in its place. I decided on bulbs and now I have a path of smiling “paperwhites” (see Paperwhite Pinwheels, Dec. 2017) to greet me when I get home.
Bulbs are a resourceful way to cultivate areas of the garden that are less suitable for other annuals, herbs, shrubs, or trees. Whether trying to give structure to a bed with a flowering bulb border or naturalizing an otherwise weedy overgrown area, designing with bulbs is a relatively low-maintenance way to cover ground and add color to a garden. Whenever I am stumped for how to fill garden space, I bedazzle with bulbs!
Because of their unique method of propagation, bulbs are an incredibly simple plant to work with in school gardens. It is not critical to know the difference between a ‘true’ bulb, corm, rhizome or tuberous root, but older children enjoy observing the unusual plant part that self-sustains year after year with minimal care.
Bulbs are especially great for the youngest of learners. Because of their size, even preschool children can handle bulbs more easily than they can hold seeds. In addition, bulbs have more room for error in planting depth than seeds do, especially when planted in a small pot. I’ve seen garden teachers conduct a planting activity using daffodils with one grade level and then using the growing bulbs months later for a sketching activity for another grade level. As such, bulbs are efficient to manage many classes in a school garden. Lastly, bulbs produce replicas of themselves; dividing and sending home bulbs brings great joy to families.
Although the bulb life cycle is somewhat perpetual, it is important to distinguish bloom time from planting time. The bulb you bury underground in the fall contains all the stored energy it needs to grow leaves. These leaves gather and process the sun’s energy until it produces a stem and, ultimately, a flower, but not until the following spring. Late summer or fall blooming bulbs can be planted in late winter or early spring.
After blooming, bulbs die back and lie dormant until the following year. In some climates, bulbs need to be dug up and stored for winter, but lazy gardener than I am, I only let the most resilient plants stay in my yard. My very favorite bulb is the Amaryllis Belladona (also known as “Naked Lady”) because they bloom near my August birthday. Here are just a few others I like to use with children, organized by bloom season. Most can be purchased in-state (recommended) at Easy to Grow Bulbs:
- Winter bloom: Paperwhites or early Daffodils (narcissus), Crocus, Iris (Tulips in areas that receive ample chill hours).
- Spring bloom: (early) Hyacinth, Muscari, Fritillaria; (late) Dutch Iris, Alliums, Ranunculus.
- Summer bloom: Gladiolus, Begonias, Bearded Iris, Amaryllis Belladonna.
- Fall bloom: Begonias, Cana Lily, Dahlia, Autumn Crocus, Elephant Ears.