When I’m standing outdoors in the depths of winter, I try to imagine what it’s like now, at the end of a hot and steamy summer. This isn’t to get the blood flowing in January — it’s a way of enduring the cold and reminding myself how much more bearable it is than the heat.
What do I do now? I’m projecting forward to February, when the first signs are there of winter loosening its grip. One of the most conspicuous heralds is a bonny buttercup named the winter aconite. Its yellow flower is borne just above a radiating necklace of green leaves. By the time it is finished a month later, this ruffed chalice is elevated a few inches above the soil. It may dwell amid a layer of snow, which heightens the paradox of something so delicate being so tough.
I’m thinking of the winter aconite not merely as a device to cool the summer-sizzled mind, but because we are on the threshold of bulb-ordering season. Some of the specialty bulbs need to be in hand soon and in the garden soon after, because they tend to be less robust out of the ground than daffodil bulbs.
The winter aconite is one of the fussiest bulbs in dormancy, perhaps because it’s not a bulb but a tuber and therefore less able to endure prolonged dormant storage. The advice is to order them now for speedy shipment and then soak them overnight before planting.
Christian Curless, horticulturist with online bulb merchant Colorblends, says he hasn’t had problems with fall-planted tubers failing to grow. Still, bulb guru Brent Heath says, “it’s best to soak them overnight before planting.”
Carol Long, curator of garden at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library near Wilmington, Delaware., says she prefers to expand the display by transplanting winter aconites in growth or by sowing seed. (Sounds like a greenhouse job.) They bloom three years after germination. These approaches require you to have a colony already, or at least friends with winter aconites to share.
Long oversees March Bank, the deciduous woodland at Winterthur famous for its succession of established colonies of winter aconite, snowdrops, Italian windflowers and other beauties that bridge the shift from winter to spring. Beyond its vernal beauty, such a carpet is a product of decades of unmolested increase, aided by the insects that spread the seeds.
If you are up for a challenge, order winter aconite bulbs, soak them and plant them with dispatch. If only half of them come up this winter, you’re on your way to establishing a colony. If you want more certainty, choose other bulbs.
There is one other way winter aconites, or eranthis, differ from other bulbs. They like shade and need enriched, moisture-retentive soil even as they shrink back into the ground in spring. Virtually everything else, from daffodils to crocuses, does best in free-draining soil, requiring dryness in summer dormancy. A dry, sunny slope is ideal for most bulbs. Irrigation systems and perennial bulbs don’t get along.
The obvious companion to winter aconites is the snowdrop. As with winter aconites, snowdrops have a reputation for being difficult, and the conventional wisdom is that they should only be moved “in the green” — that is, in leaf after flowering. I might do this if I paid $70 for a choice variety, but for common or garden types, this is overkill. As long as you get the little bulbs in the ground with haste, they will appear this winter.
The giant snowdrop appears for me in late January, and the common snowdrop comes about three or four weeks later. Named varieties can draw you into the realm of high-priced beauties, but the lowly species and their old varieties do the trick of lifting the spirit and are perfect for bringing life to the winter display.
But enough about winter, because the best season is just ahead of us. I would urge people to become acquainted with the autumn flowering crocus, which is similar in form and color to the early spring version but appears in late October, when the perennial garden is soft and full of the texture and unexpected beauty of decline.
The crocuses are a reminder that nothing about a cherished garden is moribund; it’s just that everything has its cycle. The most famous of these is Crocus sativus, whose elongated stigmas of burnished orange give us saffron, but others abound.
Heath, of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, offers a dozen types of autumn crocus, but he particularly likes Crocus laevigatus Fontenayi, which has purple striped petals that open to reveal a pale center. These crocuses begin to grow and bloom once soil temperatures descend into the 50s. The latest bloomer is Crocus medius, which in Heath’s Gloucester, Virginia, garden appears in November and December, shrugs off light frosts, and brings an extended display. The bright orange stigmas are surrounded by petals of deep violet. As with all perennial bulbs, their first flowering season is not representative of when they will flower in future years. Once they have settled in, they usually show up earlier.
As gardens become more naturalistic and gardeners are (I hope) not cutting back fading herbaceous material, it does little good to have fall crocuses smothered with other plants. One place to put them where they will be noticed, Long says, is between shrubs. She also has them in grassy areas, but Heath cautions against placing them in a lawn that gets fertilized and watered to any measure. These crocuses are perfect in slopes with low-growing ground covers such as mondo grass.
Mice and squirrels love newly planted crocus bulbs, so plant deeply, and when they flower, you’ll have to worry about deer browsing.
If you have deer, go with colchicums, which are similar but not related to crocus, even though they are sometimes misnamed fall crocus. They’re larger, and the leaves, when they appear in the spring, are far more conspicuous than those of crocus. Colchicums are more expensive than autumn crocus but cheaper than a deer fence.
If you have not yet tried species and species-type tulips, now is your chance. They are reliably perennial in sunny, open sites and are shorter, daintier, earlier and generally more interesting than their big brothers and sisters. They open fully on sunny days in March to reveal inner petal markings, often with contrasting eyes. It’s a whole different tulip experience. Little Beauty is one of my favorites, a magenta red opening to reveal a blue eye.
Colorblends, which specializes in designed mixtures, sells mixes of species-type tulips in a blend named Aladdin’s Carpet (this includes a variety of daffodil and three of grape hyacinth), Wildfyre, a duet in red and orange, and Votive Motif, a collection of delicate, candy striped clusiana varieties. Shipping begins in late September, Curless said. (The minimum order is $60.)
Ordering and thinking about where to plant these treasures is the best way I know of getting past the grip of summer and thinking about the superior seasons.