Doing the Bulbs

I have, as we say here, been Doing the Bulbs. This used to be an event which took place at this time each year with every pot or tray being repotted on a two yearly cycle but it was a practice which somehow dropped down the priority list until it fell off the bottom and I don’t think anybody has Done the Bulbs since I last tackled them six or seven years ago. It is rather a case of survival of the fittest and some of the thugs have taken control.

Mark’s late father was very keen on bulbs and built up a good selection in the garden. In turn, Mark bought or acquired every different bulb he could lay his hands on over a period of years but he held them in the nursery while he built them up and assessed them. Many never got out of the nursery because finding the right position in the garden hasn’t happened yet so we had developed this area that we would walk past with eyes averted so we couldn’t see the weed infestation. We are talking several hundred trays and pots so it is not a little task that can be done quickly. After a week’s work, I am about half way through.

Over the years, Mark has removed the really special bulbs to his covered house so what I am dealing with are the survivors of benign neglect.

When bulbs are mentioned, most people tend to think of daffodils, tulips (which prefer areas with cold winters), anemones and ranunculus (those shrivelled up little brown packages of promise you buy are technically tubers), maybe dahlia tubers, freesias, snowdrops and a few others. Taranaki gardeners have adopted rhodohypoxis (or roxypoxies as one garden visitor called them) as our own emblem because they obligingly flower year in year out in the week of our Rhododendron Festival. But bulbs go well beyond go well beyond these common types.

Technically bulbs, tubers, corms and rhizomes are all geophytes which are characterised by their fleshy underground structure where nutrients and moisture are stored making it possible for the plant to survive periods of drought or cold. The greatest threat to bulbs in our climate is that they can be too wet and rot out, especially those which have a dormant period (not every bulb goes dormant). In their native habitats, growth periods coincide with optimal growing conditions which, in the case of the large majority of our successful garden bulbs from South Africa, mean that they are triggered by autumn rains. Of course here we don’t just have autumn rain. We have winter rains, spring rain and, thank goodness this week, summer rain, so we can struggle with bulbs which require long dry periods. So good drainage, better drainage and excellent drainage are the three most critical elements to growing them in the garden.

The advantage of holding the bulbs in the nursery has also been to sort out which are invasive. Our worst weed in the rockery came in as a garden bulb – a geissorhiza with a pretty blue flower in spring which then seeded everywhere and put off multiple, tiny off shoots all of which seem to survive and to reproduce. It is a menace. The most common menace bulb which many gardeners suffer from is one of the oxalis family but over the past week I have uncovered others. Not all lapeirousia or moraeas are worth cherishing. Some just look dangerous. And while we are quite happy to naturalise some bulbs in our garden, those which are attempting to naturalise themselves with no assistance from us at all are inviting an encounter with Round Up. They are not all precious.

Doing a quick flick around the garden, I see there are a number of summer bulbs in flower. It is peak time for the completely OTT auratum lilies (of Japanese origin) which are a mainstay of our summer garden. The scadoxus katherinae (from South Africa and Zimbabwe) are in full flower, as are the glorious gloriosas from the same part of the world. The pretty cyclamen hederafolium from Southern Europe and Turkey have started. The zephyranthes, sometimes referred to as rain lilies, hailing from the Americas are putting up intermittent neat little copper coloured flowers alongside our driveway. It is a veritable United Nations flowering and the beauty of an extensive bulb collection is that you can pretty well guarantee that there will be some with fresh flowers for every month of the year. They add a wonderful seasonal interest and detail to a garden.

So back to sorting out our packages of promise here, many of which will remain a mystery until they grow because while some bulbs at least survived a prolonged period of neglect, the same can not be said for their accompanying labels. Those which the birds did not scatter have tended to fade beyond deciphering stage. By the by, writing on plastic labels with a soft pencil is preferable to felt pen – pencil lasts much longer (a trick we have learned over the years in the nursery). While I can recognise a fritillaria bulb from a scilla or a lachenalia, when we started with a collection of around 15 different frits, even more lachenalias and goodness knows how many different scillas it has become more problematic. It may take a season or two to re-establish the identities.

Postscripts to my last column. Mark was absolutely delighted to lay his hands on a Planet Junior from a reader and has been carefully oiling the handle and wondering where he might find some of the additional attachments which were originally available as extras. In case you are wondering what a Planet Junior is, think of it as the manual pre-cursor to the rotary hoe.

And the Monarch Trust secretary in Northland was delighted to read my last column on the topic. She has been sending information through, along with two packets of seed for red and yellow flowered forms of swan plant (we do have a blue flowered form here too). I think she has recruited Mark to join the band of taggers (those who put tiny stickers on monarch butterflies which are wintering over). If you want to contact the Trust, they have a wonderful email address: (nothing to do with the Royal Family). She tells me monarchs arrived here naturally around 1840 so they are technically native to our country. I did not know that.