Gardeners, like everyone else, can be easily seduced by the moment: we crave what’s in bloom now. Nurseries respond accordingly, so what you see around you is often for sale just then. Never mind that plants prefer to be planted and get established well before or after they flower; we’re an impetuous and forgetful species that wants what it wants when it sees it, not months later.
This tendency may partly account for the relative lack of bulbs in Santa Fe gardens. In spring, when they pop up like magic amid the decay of last year’s growth, they are not available for purchase. By October, when you can finally get your hands on them, most have long vanished from landscapes. Meanwhile we’re glorying in asters and chamisa and thinking about lighting the first fire of the season. Winter still seems far off. Spring is but a dream.
But come February or March, those of us who managed to put a few handfuls of bulbs in the ground in October will be grateful. There’s nothing so reviving as spotting their green tips poking through the browns and greys of winter. And when they start to bloom, it’s sheer delight. Though they’re not native, they also play an ecological role: they may be the only game in town for bees who come out of hibernation on warm late-winter and early-spring days.
One of the best things about bulbs is how easy they are to grow here. I was surprised to realize this. I thought you had to have some sort of special knowledge or that Santa Fe’s brutal climate would be too much for them. In fact many of them come from steppe regions not unlike ours, such as Turkey, the western Himalayas, Iran, and the Balkans. They evolved to bloom early, when moisture is more plentiful and temperatures are cooler. They quickly replenish themselves through their foliage, storing the nutrients they need for the following year before going dormant in summer’s heat and dryness. Many require cold winters to bloom.
That said, “easy” does not mean “guaranteed.” Some bulbs do better in dryer, sunnier environments like rock gardens and will rot with too much summer water, while others are more suited to woodlands and will shrivel up in baking hot, arid situations. In general, the species types and dwarf varieties of any bulb are tougher and more adapted to harsh growing conditions than are the taller, fancier hybrids.
The Santa Fe Botanical Garden’s chief horticulturalist, Scott Canning, talked with me about some of his recommendations for our region. Though daffodils are a bit thirstier than the most drought-tolerant bulbs, the miniature Narcissus "Topolino" is an exception. It and Ipheion uniflorum (star flower) have naturalized at the garden in an area that gets no supplemental irrigation.
For dry, sunny parts of the garden, Canning also recommends species tulips, including Tulipa greigii, Tulipa turkestanica, Tulipa batalinii, Tulipa clusiana, and Tulipa dasystemon. Even more than most bulbs, these need good drainage and will rot if kept wet in summer. If you like old-fashioned hybrid tulips, Canning suggests Single Early tulips: "Apricot Delight" is a particularly good and popular one. The Darwin and Triumph classes are also pretty reliable for Santa Fe.
Among Canning’s favorite bulbs are the deliriously gorgeous eremurus species (foxtail lilies). They flourish at Denver Botanical Gardens and would also do well here, he says, with a bit of extra water. They have a delicate, octopus-like root system and need to be handled with care when planting.
The biggest challenge for bulb growers in Santa Fe may be predators like gophers, squirrels, deer, and rabbits. Certain bulbs, including daffodils, alliums, and fritillarias, are pest-resistant and worth trying in landscapes where these critters are present. Bob Pennington, of Agua Fria Nursery, has been growing bulbs in Santa Fe for nearly half a century. He recommends planting daffodils around roses and fruit trees for protection. The moister conditions these trees and shrubs prefer also suit most daffodils.
Tulips and crocuses, on the other hand, are critter candy. Species types may be less vulnerable than highly cultivated ones. I’ve had Tulipa clusiana (lipstick tulips) as well as Tulipa bakeri ("Lilac Wonder") growing for several years without problems, despite a few gopher invasions. Pennington also suggests Tulipa tarda.
For a long season of bulbous joy, plant a wide variety of types. Pennington recommends eranthis (winter aconite), crocuses, snowdrops, and Iris reticulata for the earliest blooms. At least one fellow Master Gardener has also had success with chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow), a very early bloomer that likes cooler, moister conditions. Daffodils and tulips have a range of bloom times and can be planted so that one species or another is in flower from early to late spring. Deep blue muscari (grape hyacinths) set off the whites, yellows, pinks, and reds of other mid-spring bulbs, and they do brilliantly here, multiplying with abandon given half a chance (they do need a moderate amount of water once their grass-like foliage reappears in late summer).
In addition to their striking appearance and pest-repelling talents, alliums are valued for blooming later than most bulbs. Allium christophii (star of Persia) is an often-mentioned favorite. Others that do well here include Allium schubertii and Allium sphaerocephalon (drumstick allium), as well as "Purple Sensation" and "Millenium." Alliums often spread prolifically via seed, a virtue for some gardeners, but if you’re a neat freak they may not be for you.
Experienced bulb growers, including Pennington, often lament the beginner’s tendency to plant just one or two bulbs, with inevitably disappointing results. To be effective, bulbs should be planted in groups or swaths. En masse they are stunning; as a single specimen or in a straight, thin line, they can look a little pathetic. Also pay attention to size: the smaller the bulb, the nearer it needs to be to pathways and the edge of borders to be appreciated. Bulbs use their foliage to recharge, so don’t remove it until it is completely dead. If you are bothered by the sight of withering foliage, plant strategically so that it will be hidden by later-growing grasses, perennials, and groundcovers.
It can be intimidating trying to figure out exactly the right time to plant bulbs based on expert advice, which often varies and can be extremely precise. In my limited experience, it’s not that complicated. Wait until nights are consistently cool, in the mid-50s or lower. Ideally you want to give the bulbs about six weeks to root out before the ground freezes, but climate change has extended that date in Santa Fe; as long as they’re planted before December, they should be fine.
Dig your holes approximately three times as deep as the bulbs are tall and place them pointy side up. A little Yum Yum fertilizer in the backfill soil is probably all that’s necessary for amendment, though you may also want to add some compost if you’re planting larger daffodils and tulips or woodland-type bulbs. Water them in well and then water occasionally until spring if precipitation is scarce. Once the foliage appears, water weekly. After a few years of productivity, certain bulbs may start to decline or become over-crowded. They can be dug up and divided to rejuvenate them.
Bulbs are easy, charming additions to any garden. So get some catalogs or go to local nurseries and start planting.
Sarah Baldwin is editor of the Santa Fe Extension Master Gardeners monthly newsletter (firstname.lastname@example.org).