There are bulbs for every climate and with care they will keep growing year after year.
WASHINGTON — Gardeners who are seeking a lot of color with little maintenance can get both from summer-blooming bulbs, which should be planted soon.
Once established, bulbs tend to return perennially with colorful displays of flowers. Most bulbs that bloom in spring, such as daffodils, tulips, and crocuses, are planted in fall. Many colorful bulbs that bloom in summer are planted when the soil begins to warm in spring.
The word “bulb” is a somewhat generic term for plants with food-storing roots. These can technically be corms, rhizomes, tubers or fleshy rhizome-like roots, rather than true bulbs. Dahlias, for instance, are tubers. Gladioli are corms, and cannas, alstroemeria and other plants with elongated, thickened roots are rhizomes.
Bulbs work well when used along with perennials in borders. Summer-flowering bulbs not only will complement perennials, but also will fill in during seasons when perennials aren’t making a show.
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Some bulbous plants of this type are hostas, day lilies, Joe-pye weed, agapanthus, lilium and liatris. Bulb foliage will die or begin to look tired, but most should not be cut back until it withers. When interplanted with other flora, the foliage will be covered and the unattractive fading foliage will go unnoticed.
Some gardeners use drifts of bulbs or rhizomatous plants in a naturalized way, planting large numbers of irises, day lilies or crocosmia that seem to surge onto the landscape. This works especially well in meadow or edge-of-the-woods situations.
Bulbs are ideal for creating a formal look, too. When planted in drifts, they add strong repetition, which is one of the easiest ways to create unity, as well as formality, especially with broad sweeps of a single color.
Bulbs can also be used as ground covers, in containers and hanging baskets or in rock gardens.
Although many plants with food-storage roots are hardy, some are not. If there is an exceptionally cold winter, marginally hardy bulbs may not survive.
If you want to ensure that bulbs survive the winter, you may need to dig them in fall and keep them in a cool, dark place for a few months. Dahlias and cannas, for example, are sensitive to cold. When siting them, keep in mind that they may have to be dug, stored and replanted.
Many bulbs prefer light, well-drained soil and may require special care. If you are installing them with other plants you might have to prepare the bulbs’ sites differently than those of their neighbors.
Don’t give up on planting bulbs because of squirrels or rabbits digging them up or deer eating them. Another strategy is to plant bulbs the animals don’t like, such as crocosmia, allium, iris and lily.
Old standards are irises, day lilies, gladioli and dahlias. But there are other bulbs you may not think of. Here are some ideas:
Crocosmia: This member of the lily family comes in shades of red, yellow and orange and sports a series of blooms on 2-foot-tall, gracefully curving stems. Crocosmia likes well-drained, sandy loam and full sun.
Hardy cyclamen: A member of the primrose family, hardy cyclamen has pink or white flowers. It likes good drainage, slightly sandy soil and woodland conditions. It doesn’t like temperatures too high or too low.
Canna lily: Cannas are spectacular specimens with blooms in shades of red, orange, pink and yellow on straight stalks that can be up to six feet tall. They like full sun in a protected location. The rhizomes will not survive in frozen ground, so mulch them well or dig them up and replant them next year.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of “Anyone Can Landscape” (Ball 2001).