It’s easy to be taken in by the catalog photos. Acres of daffodils, blooming cheerily in the sunshine. Vibrant crocuses popping up through the melting snow. Tulips—so many kinds, so many colors! Surely, if I would just order these bulbs, my spring garden will look just like the pictures.
But wait. I’m noticing that these lovely landscapes are in places such as Pennsylvania, Washington, or, as with the Breck’s photo above, the Netherlands. I live in Colorado. Yes, the bulbs are hardy here, but there’s much more to know about any plant than just a hardiness zone. Here’s what happens to most bulbs in our state:
Do you see the crocuses? No, because the cute little bunnies ate them all! Do you see the pretty daffodils, entombed in snow? They were at the height of their already-too-brief bloom the day before. Is there any hope? Can a Colorado gardener succeed with any spring-flowering bulbs?
Absolutely! Some bulbs laugh at heavy spring snows. Some bulbs are distasteful—or poisonous—to deer, rabbits, and squirrels. The trick is picking the right ones.
First is to skip the tall, impressive tulips and daffodils. Sure, they look great, but they’re sure to be flattened by our heavy spring snowstorms. Big and top-heavy, they just can’t bounce back. If you’re truly determined to grow tall bulbs, make sure you have plenty of boxes and tubs at hand to cover them when it snows. Me, I can’t be bothered. Instead, look for the short plants—miniature daffodils (Tete-a-tete, Minnow, etc.) and species tulips (left). Plant these short flowers in the front of the border, under late-to-leaf-out shrubs, or in a rock garden where you’ll be sure to notice them. They may be buried, but they resurrect themselves as soon as the snow melts.
Likewise, many so-called “minor bulbs” flourish in spite of repeatedly being dumped on. The first fall in our new house, I scattered a swath of 60 Chionodoxa bulbs under a newly planted lilac tree. Appropriately called Glory of the Snow, they bloomed while everything around them was still dormant, spreading sky-blue across the mulch. The catalog claims they’ll naturalize and increase. I certainly hope so!
Snow isn’t the only hazard of a Colorado spring. Hungry deer, rabbits, squirrels, and other critters are looking for something—anything—to eat, and a pretty flower is mighty tempting. Unless you can protect them with some sort of physical barrier (so attractive, right?), buying tasty bulbs is just an expensive way to feed the wildlife.
This is why God created poisonous plants. Some bulbs have managed to get ahead of the herbivores: daffodils and hyacinths are two popular flowers that animals will avoid. (I found that rabbits had nibbled on my early emerging daffodil foliage, but quickly stopped.) Autumn blooming Colchicum autumnale is also deadly in sufficient quantities.
Then there are bulbs that are poisonous to some animals, but not to others. Summer’s lilies are deadly to cats, but won’t hurt dogs. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are on lists of plants dangerous to pets, but there’s no mention of how they affect wildlife. (Still, they would be worth a try.) And strangely, tulips were on every poisonous plant list (they contain poisonous glycosides, as do daffodils), yet I’ve seen squirrels digging them up and gulping them down! This squirrel was having a tulip feast at the Denver Botanic Gardens, proving that even the experts lose plants to hungry critters.
This is the best time to plant spring-blooming bulbs. Choose wisely so that your (back-breaking, knee-destroying) labor is not in vain.