Arranging a bulb display

Jim McKenney
Wed, 25 Aug 2010 10:10:01 PDT
In the fall of 2008 I made a big change in the way I grow most of my
“collector’s” bulbs. Until then, each accession (and yes, each new accession
gets a number) had been grown in a separate pot or other container with a
label. Among the advantages of this system is that the pots could be moved
around as things bloomed; in addition, is was very satisfying to my
collector’s instincts to be able to go out at any time of year and put my
hands on each and every  plant. 


By the fall of 2008 the cold frames had become so crowded that I decided to
restrict residence in the cold frames to only those plants which absolutely
required it. The rest were moved into less protected cold frames (really
raised beds proportioned to allow them to be completely covered by a
discarded glass sliding door). When this move was made, it introduced
several changes in the way I was growing things. For one, the plants in
their new location were growing in the soil of the frame, not in pots
(although they were in plastic mesh berry boxes). This meant that a) I no
longer had to check them for watering daily during the growing season and b)
I surrendered the tight control over watering that pot culture provides. The
plastic mesh berry baskets have advantages and disadvantages. They provide
excellent drainage, but they also provide an easy escape route to any
stoloniferous plant or any plant with the tendency to move deeper into the
earth yearly. 

In addition to these things, I had given some consideration to the aesthetic
side of things. Rock gardeners will be familiar with the concepts of “alpine
meadows” and “Caucasian bulb fields” and similar attempts to group plants of
similar culture in an attractive and meaningful way in gardens in favored
localities. Attractive as these ideas are on a conceptual level, no one who
has lived through a couple of Maryland summers will take them seriously. But
I wanted something similar, and came up with this scheme: instead of
planting one taxon per basket, I not only mixed taxa but combined bulbs into
groups of unrelated taxa, the idea being that I would have no trouble
telling dissimilar bulbs apart when digging time came. Thus in the end each
basket had a combination such as this: one small tulip, one crocus, one
reticulate iris, one small daffodil, one fritillary and so on.  “One” here
does not mean one bulb, it means one variety. No basket contained more than
one sort of bulb type (i.e. bulb type in the sense tunicated bulb,
untunicated bulb,  corm, rhizome etc.). 

I’ve seen this planting for two springs so far, and while it’s a step in the
right direction, I’m not entirely happy with it. For one thing, a number of
immature precious bulbs went into that planting never to be seen again. They
might still be there, slowly bulking up, but I intensely miss the
satisfaction of going out and poking around in a small pot and finding a
bulb in which I have a momentary interest. On the other hand, the planting
is much more naturalistic (i.e. not natural but poetically suggesting
nature). The plants bloom together in interesting combinations, and there is
a constantly changing tapestry of interest during the bulb season. Or at
least that is the goal. 

The original plans for this planting called for the use of some winter
annuals among the bulbs – that has yet to happen. But since the frames are
kept dry during the summer, this seems an ideal place to grow such annuals. 

There is a chance I’ll be redoing this entire planting this fall. At
present, there are several frames in this area; these frames are not
connected, although they are lined up closely. In the new scheme, the frames
will be consolidated into on roughly twenty foot long frame.  If that
happens, the new arrangement will be made so that the beds are viewed from
one side only. And the bed surfaces, while still plane, will be sloped so
that they are high in the back and low in the front. This viewing from one
side only and sloping from back to front are both being done to make
photography easier and to open space for a tiny sitting area facing the bulb
frames. The compass orientation is such that the sun will be to the back of
the viewer much of the time, and the light will be right for photography. 

Photography: this, oddly enough, has emerged as an important consideration
in how I plant my bulb collection. When the plants were in small individual
pots, the pots could be moved around and brought out into the light, two
factors important to photographers. During the two seasons my bulb
collection has mostly been in the ground, I feel I have lost lots of good
photography opportunities simply because it’s hard to get a good photo of a
small plant when the only approach is from above: thus the idea for the
gently sloped bed surface in the new scheme of things.


When I was a kid, I saw a German book on the display of animals in zoos
according to zoö- and phytogeographic principles. An effort was made to
match the animal to plants from the same general area of the earth. This
was, in a very broad and basic way, instructive. But as anyone with a real
knowledge of the distribution of plants and animals can easily anticipate,
the effort fell short over and over again when anyone with some knowledge of
these things took the fine details into consideration. This is just what
Jane alluded to when she mentioned that grouping all plants from a given
geographic or political entity together obscures the fact that in nature
those same plants would be distributed at various elevations and in various


So for me, it’s cultural requirements over natural provenance. I no longer
pretend that I know enough about this to make a meaningful go of it in my
garden. I group plants strictly by cultural requirements, and delight in the
sight of a Chilean Tropaeolum tangling itself on the rigid foliage of Iris
tuberosa or Ruscus hypoglossum in my protected cold frame, just as I delight
the sight of tree peonies which trace to China blooming beautifully over
Phlox divaricata and Aquilegia canadensis from the local woods. 


In other words, it’s a garden, not a habitat restoration project. 


I’m beginning to wonder if it really is possible to have a stable,
attractive, low maintenance bulb planting under my conditions. Some plants,
crocuses in particular, have to be protected at all seasons and from all
sides. Unless planted in wire mesh cubes, they soon disappear. It has been
necessary to not only plant them in the mesh cubes, it’s also been necessary
to keep wire mesh over the entire raised bed to keep out rodents, rabbits,
deer,  cats and birds. There are times when I look at my bulb frames and
feel I am running a nineteenth century zoo for plants with every exhibit
carefully contained behind bars, in this case to protect the inhabitants of
my plant zoo from the numerous visitors which have designs on them. 


I blame all of my current frustrations on Patrick Synge who, in Collins
Guide to Bulbs fifty years ago, described raised frames in which bulbs were
grown (at the time, a new concept to me). After reading that, I was
convinced that such frames where an important adjunct to any gentleman’s
garden. I saw myself passing my frames on a brisk March morning as I walked
to the car for the trip to the office; my gait would slow as I briefly noted
the progress of the reticulate irises,  the duration of the snowdrops, the
appearance of some rare treasure recently acquired from Mr. Mars. I could
then face the day and whatever it brought, secure in the knowledge that all
was well in the garden.  Now, a half century later, I’m still trying to
figure out the culture of many plants. And that’s probably a big part of the
reason that people ask me “Why are you so happy all the time?” “Don’t you
ever get bored?” ”Why don’t you ever want to go anywhere?” Silly people,
they should know by now that I’m a gardener, a very content, deeply rooted


Jim McKenney

Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.03871º North, 77.09829º West, USDA zone

My Virtual Maryland Garden



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