Thursday, November 12, 2009

Flowers and bulbs for winter and early spring

I haven't reviewed the history recently, but as I remember, bulbs were brought from the Middle East to Europe in the early 1600's and became wildly popular. The prices of tulip bulbs skyrocketed in the "tulip craze." However, in 1632 there were enough for all, and the prices crashed, losing many a fortune.
Since then those of us who experience winter can enjoy flowers all year round. I do, and some of you have asked for a more detailed description of what I do. First I buy bulbs, and I believe you still can from garden centers near here. If my act is together, I buy them from Fedco before their August deadline. They are much cheaper, but inconvenient and their catalog is black and white. If I miss that, Dutch Gardens takes orders much later. I've been completely satisfied with the quality of bulbs from both, and I haven't heard any bad reports from local garden centers.
The first bulbs to bloom are "paperwhites," a daffodil that grows in water. I have two ancient low glass vases in which I always keep gravel to hold the paperwhite bulbs. One on this year's ten began blossoming two weeks ago, which is a delightful addition to my kitchen, but they usually begin around Thanksgiving and continue through December, a lovely addition to a bouquet of holly.

All other bulbs for winter go into a pot with the homemade potting soil that I have described before. The others go into the ground before it freezes, but after the annuals have been killed off in the first frost (last Friday). Some of these "naturalize," which is a jargon word meaning that they will reproduce in situ and you don't have to replace them. Others must be replaced each year if you are to enjoy them in the early spring. All the bulbs for sale can go into our ground, but only some, they say, can be "forced," the word for growing them indoors in winter.
My house was built in 1925 and has a cold cellar, which is colder than the rest of the house but warmer than outside. This is what the bulbs need. In Florida people who want tulips dig theirs up each fall and put them in the refrigerator for winter because they don't perform if they have only Florida's "warm" winter weather. My daughter in MA puts them in the back of her attached garage, which seems to work. Most cellars in Montclair have a colder spot that would do.
The recommended crocus for forcing is "flower record," a beautiful purple crocus to enjoy in January. Tete-a-tete daffodils are a miniature daffodil that blooms shortly thereafter. Then delft hyacinths and many daffodils, including King Arthur, bloom. The last forced bulbs that I enjoy are triumph tulips. In truth, I have not tried many other bulbs since these bring me such pleasure. By the time the triumphs are finished indoors, I have a mass of daffodils at the back of my property, planted from bulbs of previous year that I can pick abundantly.
When I began gardening, I remembered Shakespeare's oft-used phrase, "sweet columbine." He wrote around 1600 in England, and I now suspect that columbine was the first flower he saw after a flower-less winter. No wonder it seemed so sweet! It still is, but it is just one more flower in my year-round supply.
Flowers are not as essential for life as vegetables, but if you like them, they are worth cultivating. European and North American flower shops are importing flowers from tropical regions, and their cultivation is doing some terrible damage to previously beautiful places. Furthermore, we computed in my math class last month that at present rates, the known supply of petroleum will be gone in 38 years. That will put a real crimp in transporting flowers (which also need refrigeration,
as well as transport fuel), and we might as well learn to grow them locally. Of course, my bulbs come from Holland, but they are much easier to transport than fragile flowers, and if Holland can grow bulbs, so can New Jersey, given an incentive.
Meanwhile, I enjoy watching the bulbs grow under my care. In the cellar I water all the pots (24 of them now!) once a week or so. When the plants grow to 2" high, I bring them to my greenhouse window (any old window will do), and start watering them (almost) every day. I can put them in a tray of water if I go away for a week or less in January, and they seem happy there. This year I also brought in a nasturtium and two impatiens plants that seem to be thriving in my greenhouse window, but it's probably too late for you to do that. However, life is surprising. My impatiens next to the road all crumbled last Friday, but those in the corner between the house and the chimney have happy blossoms today!


P.S. Another surprise is that I am still harvesting raspberries, but the kiwi vine became totally bare in Friday's frost.

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