extending spring bloom from bulbs, with scott kunst

bulb collageEVERY YEAR when the fall catalogs arrive, I say: I really need to layer in more spring bulbs to this bed or that bed, and extend my bloom time. Fall’s our chance to plant many spring-blooming species, so I made sure to get the nudge I need from Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens. We talked about how to get stubborn winter aconite—spring’s first bulb—going; about eight weeks of tulips; why I need to try hyacinths; some other animal-proof choices, and more.

Since 1993, Scott has run Old House Gardens, the only American resource devoted exclusively to heirloom bulbs, many available nowhere else–older varieties that have been handed down for their enduring value and interest.

After a degree from Columbia, Scott returned to Michigan to teach school and bought an 1870s fixer-upper house in Ann Arbor that led to an epiphany when he realized some of the plants outside it were hand-me-downs of gardeners past. He pursued a masters in historic preservation, worked as a landscape historian, and has taught landscape history at Eastern Michigan University.

And most important for this discussion: Having that whole catalog of bulbs to choose from for more than 20 years, he’s got something blooming pretty much nonstop all growing season in his yard, and can help us to fill in the blanks in ours.

He joined me for the August 18, 2014 edition of my public-radio show and podcast, and the transcript follows:

spring bulb q&a with scott kunst

countrygardensQ. I was excited to see my old friend Anne Raver’s piece on you in the summer issue of Country Gardens. Specifically about your Ann Arbor micro-farms–which are not for micro salad greens, but bulbs and bulb-like plants.

A. We’ve planted what are just some little scraps of land–vacant lots, and a couple of backyards nobody was doing anything with, even one leading down to the railroad tracks. We talked to the owners and got permission, and started growing some of the bulbs here that we couldn’t get from the vast network of growers we bring bulbs in from. Our bearded iris, and also daylilies—historic, graceful old varieties that we couldn’t get in any quantity. We tried some other things, too, like our rarest tulips, but our Dutch friends do a better job there. And we tried growing some of our rarest glads.

But it’s nice not to be just the scholars and merchants and home gardeners, but also to be doing a little bit of farming on at least a micro scale. On these little bits of land, all they did all summer was mow it, or park cars on it before.

It’s hard work—our little tiny bit of farming here in Ann Arbor has increased my appreciation of what a terrifying hard job farming is. And I appreciate my farmers more, now that I’m a tiny farmer.

Q. So on to spring bulbs in the garden: You told me someone on your staff the other day said, “I don’t think many people know you can have bulbs in bloom from snow to iris season.” Set the scene of the potential chronology.

A. The things about spring bulbs: There are a lot of small bulbs that start blooming way before daffodils—or crocus, which people also know. I’m looking for ways to see those first blooms earlier in the year, earlier than crocus, and to take blooms later into the fall as well.

For us the first thing to bloom is winter aconite, not crocus or snowdrops.

eranthis sowing aroundQ. My spring starts with Eranthis hyemalis, too, the winter aconite [above photo at Margaret’s in March]–and it can be in the first half of March if the snow has melted, which is pretty daring in Zone 5B. The early awakening pollinators appreciate them, too.

A. That’s true with crocus, too—that’s one of the thrills. To go out and look at my crocus, the bees are there before I ever got there, even though it’s really cold out.

So Eranthis are really short, buttercup flowers, and once you get them established, they start to spread about. In fact, ants distribute the seed, and they’ll even move into a thin lawn—they seem to like that even more than a cultivated bed.

Q. You said the key phrase: “Once you get them established.” People find them impossible to get going. In your catalog I see a tactical improvement to help with that.

A. I was frustrated with this, too; I kept buying them and planting them, too, and actually the first time I got them established, I dug them up from a friend’s garden, a shovel-ful.

We get ours wax-dipped now. It’s the same wax they put on apples in supermarkets—a horticultural sort of thing that holds moisture in a little longer, so you’ll have better luck.

Also: A lot of these small bulbs you plant shallowly, and squirrels and rodents are really hungry, so they dig them up.

Q. That never happens in my garden. [Laughter.]

A. So even if they don’t eat them, they’re small, and you don’t notice it like a tulip bulb, and then they never actually spend the winter underground.

Something that’s really handy: There’s this black plastic mesh netting, with holes maybe an inch square, that you can buy every garden center for draping over berry bushes. You cut it into any shape you want, peg it down with some twigs over what you’ve just planted, and for us it keeps anything trying to come in from the top, like squirrels—our bane–from digging things up.

copyright Old House GardensQ. So what comes next in bloom? The Galanthus, or snowdrops, aren’t far behind here.

A. It can be a couple of days or a week or two, depending on the season. They’re wonderful—in the Eastern, northern half of the country, it’s hard to beat them. They just seem at home, and multiply. They’ll get out into our lawn, and I don’t think they’re the prettiest in lawns, but they do that.

There are many rare, slightly different and interesting varieties, like ‘Magnet’ [above left], from 1888.

Q. They have become super collectible, the snowdrops.

A. Yes, they are—and some are pricey. But I don’t think you can beat the traditional Galanthus nivalis [above right], or what they call the “giant snowdrop,” which is a bit of a misnomer, because it’s just a tiny bit bigger. It’s Galanthus elwesii, the Elwes snowdrop. It’s just a little bit bigger and juicier, and the petals spread a little bit more, so if you’ve never tried it, I’d recommend that one.

Copyright Old House GardensQ. So we’ve had some yellow and some white blooms, and then what’s next?

A. Some blues. I’m a big fan of Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) [above right], and glory-of-the-snow, too—Chionodoxa, and there are forms of that around, in various shades from lavender to deeper blue. I really like the Turkish one, which is Chionodoxa sardensis [above left].

Q. It can be hard to find, but it’s my favorite.

A. We first saw it at Wave Hill [the public garden in New York City] and then we tracked it down to offer it.

Q. And the Siberian squill?

A. A lot of flowers are called blue, but aren’t. Siberian squill is really a blue-blue-blue can look almost turquoise in some settings. It can be weedy—I have been in old homes where it’s out in the lawns so much it’s almost too much—but it’s super beautiful.

tommiesQ. And then what’s next?

A. Crocus—and the tommies (Crocus tommasinianus) [left] are great. The wonderful thing is if you can get the original species form, there’s enough genetic diversity in it, and then they set seed—and that’s how they spread about.

A bulb underground will multiply—but won’t move across the garden bed, where seeds will. So on a light slope, they’ll tumble down and make beautiful patches.

Q. C. tommasinianus is supposed to be the most animal-proof crocus, but I failed [proof in photo below]—the animals in my neighborhood didn’t get the memo. [More animal-resistant bulbs, on A Way to Garden.]

rodent proof crocusA. Is it chipmunks, maybe?

Q. Yes–I have so many chipmunks, and probably tunneling voles knock them out of the ground, too. But basically the tommies are a good choice.

A. They’re earlier—and I love the big, old traditional Dutch crocus, but they’re not going to seed about, but just clump up.

Q. So what bulb follows the crocus?

A. Next are hyacinths, but it’s sort of a toss-up, because the earliest daffodils start next, too, and daffodils have a long season; hyacinths not so much. I’m a big fan of hyacinths, and once upon a time were the most popular bulb in the world, believe it or not, more than tulips or daffodils. Back in the late 1700s and all through the 1800s, you open any catalog and they always start with pages of hyacinths, and then a few less pages of tulips, and then daffodils are like a half of a page way in the back.

Q. We’ve kind of flipped it on its head—it’s the opposite now. Why?

A. They’re kind of chunky—not a wildflowery, graceful, ornamental grass-like naturalistic thing at all. They’re stout, ornamental, but wonderfully fragrant. Also: They’re more expensive than other spring bulbs, because they’re hard to propagate and more labor-intensive. That may hold people back.

Q. But you’re recommending I try some?

From Old House Gardens' collectionA. I love hyacinths—the fragrance, and there are a lot of colors. Even a pot—one pot on the terrace. Like in that book, “The Jewel Box Garden,” I think that who concept of a jewel box is a great idea: One spectacular pot of something, to draw your eye, that is in a very artificial or formal setting, so you don’t confuse it with the wild natural abundance of the rest of the garden. And hyacinths are pretty animal-resistant, too.

Q. So then come the bulbs people know more about: daffodils and tulips.

A. Daffodils are also animal-resistant, and love most American climates.

Q. And you can have them for weeks and weeks, by choosing early, middle, and late varieties, yes?

A. At our website we have a chart for the daffodils so you can find all the extra-early through extra-late ones, and make choices that way to extend your bloom.

Copyright Old House GardensQ. A couple of fragrant ones to recommend?

A. In a warmer climate, all the tazettas like ‘Avalanche’ [above left] are fabulous, and have rich fragrance. Anything that has jonquil blood in it, the wild jonquilla: ‘Trevithian’ is a great one, and ‘Sweetness’ [above right]. We sell a strain from Louisiana that we call Early Louisiana jonquil.

More Northern gardeners should try the pheasant’s eyes–with their sparkling petals, and wildflowery look and spicy, nice fragrance

Q. And the tulips overlap next?

A. The tulips have a long season, too, and divide into three major seasons: early, middle and late [as noted in this chart]. Single-flowered earlies are early; single lates are late, and there are in the middle the vast majority of Triumphs, and so on.

Q. And then there are double-flowered in each season, too, that are a little later than their counterparts?

A. Exactly. And some of the species tulips bloom earlier and later, too, but you can have six or eight weeks of tulips in bloom if you work it right. And they are not animal-resistant.

Q. They’re another favorite food at Margaret’s house. [Laughter.] But I find if I plant them extra-deep they seem to perennialize better, and come back more years, and don’t get flipped out of the ground as often.

Copyright Old House GardensAnd what comes next?

A. Then we’re rocketing through the end of spring, but another really animal-resistant bulb I might recommend is the snowflake, Leucojum ‘Gravetye Giant’ [left], a classic early 20th century variety that’s very beautiful.

The plant is kind of daffodil size, but has arching sprays of little white dangling sprays.My friends in California say that the pocket gophers that even eat daffodils will not eat these bulbs.

And the last tulips are overlapping with the first bearded iris.

Copyright Old House GardensQ. Any last “new” thing you want be sure we’re on the lookout for?

A. Every year, these bulbs I’m trying to hold on to keep slipping through my fingers. A year or two ago we lost ‘L’Innocence’ white hyacinth [left], which dates back to 1863.

So my big achievement this year was to find some not-so-old bulbs from the 1950s and 1960s, to fill in some of those losses.

Q. So I’ll be on the lookout for mid-mod (mid-century modern) bulbs. Thanks as ever, Scott.

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  1. kate says:

    I tried bulbs in nursery pots last year. Planted them in fall. Then I popped them in the larger display pots on the front porch as they were ready. I got a nice succession of bloom. They got to mature their foliage out of sight in a back yard trench where I sank the nursery pots when they weren’t on display. Lots of color & fragrance close where I could enjoy it. I hope they come back this year.

  2. Paula Goff says:

    For intense blue from bulbs in late winter-early spring, don’t forget iris reticulata, a very reliable bloomer!

    1. Sue Gilmour says:

      Yes I agree, iris reticulata is spectacular, blooms with or just before crocus, they even have new ones that don’t need the long hot period so come up more reliably (Kathryn Hodgins is one of these, a beauty)

  3. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    I’ve ordered from Old House Gardens and loved their offerings. Getting their informative online newsletter is great, too. Lots of historical perspective with stories behind the bulbs and tubers. It makes growing these specimens more meaningful, more sentimental.

    The blue of the Chionodoxa’s is so appreciated in the very early spring. They are a favorite here.

  4. Alma Relkie says:

    I love bulbs of all kinds – Where are the aliums in this chronology? One hint to pass on to try and confound the critters who want to eat the bulbs. – Dust them with dry mustard or pepper before covering with the soil.

  5. Betsy Wells says:

    When you plant crocus, cover them with chicken wire to keep the squirrels from digging them up. Crocus have multiplied in my yard so that now I have more than enough bulbs for myself, my friends and the squirrels. I don’t have problem with voles. The cats got rid of them.

  6. Sheri A says:

    My problem is not with animals digging up the bulbs, but once the crocuses, tulips, etc have bloomed, the darn rabbits walk along and–snip snip snip–behead the plants, leaving the blooms lying next to the stalks. It wouldn’t bother me so much if the rabbits ate the flowers. But snipping them off is just being mean!

  7. Katie Spring says:

    I’ve had bulbs in the back of my mind all summer, and now I finally get to put them to the top of the (very long) list! I’m excited to discover Old House Gardens–thanks for this post!

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