Anna Naeser: Anna’s Garden
September 20, 2008
Last week’s column was scarcely written, let alone published, before there was a spell of cold nights, turning my thoughts to the planting of spring-blooming bulbs. Light frost touched the garden; we threw old sheets over our most vulnerable food plants at night. The full moon conjured a ghostly mountain range out of the sheet-draped eggplants, tomatillos, and spruce trees in my container garden, silhouetted against Mount Sopris. Like so many of my best effects, it was sheer serendipity. How I wished I were a good enough photographer to capture that luminous image at three in the morning!
Bulbs are problematic. Not from a horticultural point of view: Nothing could be simpler than planting bulbs. It’s the timing that’s hard. There’s a big delay in gratification on either end of the seasonal spectrum: In springtime, though I am thinking about placing bulbs as I admire them in bloom, I have to wait six months for them to become available, then in autumn, as I bury the bulbs I must try to imagine them flowering six months later. Memory wavers too. The deep pink hyacinth Vuuraak and the emerging reddish growth of the peonies made such a great combo, I simply must have more of them ” or was that the beetroot purple “Woodstock”?
The mail-order bulb companies understand this and time their mailings and web postings to coincide with the height of spring bloom, so theoretically I could order my bulbs then for fall delivery. However, when spring comes barreling into this valley, summer hot on its heels, it feels like there are thousands of things in the garden demanding my attention simultaneously. I end up buying my bulbs in the fall as I always did, sometimes too late to even plant in the garden.
Last year, I tried my hand at forcing. I potted up an assortment of bulbs in mid-November, using ordinary potting soil and various containers that were at least 6 inches deep. Instructions for forcing bulbs call for keeping them cold to root, at 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the dark for 10 to 16 weeks, depending on species, followed by a number of weeks in a cool place with high indirect light, before bringing them into full light and warmth to bloom and enjoy. Gerry put a used undercounter fridge in the greenhouse for me to use for the cold treatment.
By November, I even have time to keep a record, of sorts. On the 20th, I noted: “Set the thermostat in fridge at 40 degrees but a thermometer check the next day found it was 28 degrees. Yikes. Bought fridge without checking if thermostat worked. After trying various settings, conclude that it doesn’t: temperature is erratic and not controllable … unplug it for a day or so now and then in attempt to regulate, hoping the fridge shell will keep contents from getting too warm. More unintended consequences ” how could I have guessed that a cold concrete floor would have been better than radiant heat in a greenhouse? Bulbs in water or glass containers visibly rooting …” I unplugged the fridge.
I must have forgotten to turn it back on, because when I checked my bulbs on Dec. 12, I found to my horror “pots sitting in water, ice compartment an overflowing puddle and worst of all ” bulbs covered in a thick blue-green mold! Took everything out and in a reckless splurge of water, used the high pressure setting on hose nozzle to blast mold off bulbs. Set them all on the worktable where light is diffuse. Expectations very low.”
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Four days later, to my great surprise, most of the bulbs were sprouting and looked healthy. The grape hyacinth Valerie Finnis, was in fact blooming, an enchanting pale blue! I repotted the rest of the bulbs, expectations no longer quite so low. Valerie Finnis certainly did beautifully on my unintentional, unconventional regimen.
My last written entry was made on Jan. 22, 2008. “‘Madame Sophie,’ a 1929 double white hyacinth … in full deliciously scented bloom, graceful and perfect in the blue hyacinth glass.” Thankfully, my skills as photographer proved adequate to record the success of the other bulbs. Most of the forced bulbs went into the garden in early spring, but I left some growing in their containers until the foliage ripened. I plan to pot them up again in November and see what happens.