Down to earth — bulbs worth the backache

Originally published November 4, 2015 in East Bay Life newspapers. 

A little over a month ago I received an email from a Master Gardener on Cape Cod who mentioned at the end of the note an intention to go right out and plant Eremurus bulbs. She said foxtail lilies had done well in her garden and she was determined to add a few more. I haven’t heard from her since.

The two times I planted foxtail lilies (in others’ gardens) I thought they might be the end of me. I’m no fan of the backache associated with time spent on hands and knees troweling deep holes, but tulips and daffodils are a walk in the park comparatively. Eremurus may be ordered from any bulb company for fall planting but they’ll bear little resemblance to anything else in the shipment; they’re not actually bulbs. The perennials arrive as fragile octopi of tuberous roots the size of your grandfather’s hands or bigger, and come with explicit instructions: drape their fingers over a mound of well-draining soil, and resist the temptation to plant them too closely together. Two-to three-feet apart, say all of the catalogs and they mean it. My only memories are of following contradictory instructions to wedge them in cheek by jowl between tightly packed shrubs and perennials. I hoped, as my employers surely did, for the best.

Eremurus ‘Cleopatra’ from John Scheepers Bulbs

According to all sources, foxtail lily roots are prone to rot under crowded conditions. They require excellent drainage but have a reputation for resenting drought. Each in itself a good reason why I’m reluctant to gamble with them in my garden. Seeing is believing though. I’m as powerless as anyone to resist chest-to head-height spikes of densely packed flowers, particularly orange ‘Cleopatra’, that add serious spice to an otherwise sugary late-spring garden. One of these falls, I’ll take my chances on jamming a few in here at Chez Squeezins.

Narcissus ‘Sinopel’ from John Scheepers Bulbs

The upside is my garden wouldn’t need many for a decent show. Five might even be overkill whereas other bulbs must go in by the dozen or hundred to look like anything was planted at all. I’m not sure which is worse, engineering five large holes between the roots of other things or stabbing one hundred tiny ones. This year my bulb order, a promotional gift (a rare and exciting perk for blogging) chosen by a friend at my favorite bulb company, will include one hundred Allium azureum, Chionodoxa forbesii, and Brodiaea bulbs — to give my garden the blues, as well as a few green-streaked tulips and green-cupped daffodils. (Because I love green flowers. Go figure.)

Instructions for true bulbs like the ones I planted the other day are more straightforward. The rule of thumb is to dig a hole two and a half times as deep as the bulb is wide, which works out to about a trowel-length for most tulips and daffodils, and a knuckle or two down for the tiny ones. That said, the diminutive chionodoxa on my list want to be planted deeply, about four inches down. And unless the squirrels interfere with your efforts (a little cayenne pepper sprinkled over the planting area might help prevent mischief), most bulbs will forgive your mistakes and make adjustments as needed. Plant them upside-down and they’ll right themselves; too deeply or shallowly and they’ll bloom their pants off anyway come spring. And if they don’t, you can always blame the squirrels, whether you actively discouraged them or not.

I’m worried about the Cape Cod gardener last seen in my mind’s eye carefully placing giant eremurus roots in her borders and dropping down onto her kneeler. All attempts on my part to be back in touch have failed thus far. I can only hope she’ll respond, healthy as a horse, in plenty of time to invite me to witness a late-spring spectacle in her garden.

Did you survive planting bulbs this fall? What did you put in? — Any eremurus?

2 thoughts on “Down to earth — bulbs worth the backache”

  1. Have them and they do well here, though most bulbs do because my climate and soil profiles are more like the steppes they originated from than back east. I’m dubious about the drought claims. Mine are planted amid dryland plants and rock screes in full sun at 5,000 feet above sea level and are loving life. They don’t seem to complain that only 20″ of water is all they get from the sky, and that most of that comes in spring and the winter.

    Susan, I wish I could remember now where I read that about drought… It must have been an oversimplification of conditions that cause a failure to thrive in this part of the world. I trolled ink&penstemon for a picture — they’re gorgeous and obviously happy in your dry garden! -kris

  2. I agree with you about not being a fan of getting down on hands and knees to plant bulbs that – maybe! – will only bloom for one spring. But I too make an exception for Foxtail lillies. They are remarkable and such an exclaimation point in the spring garden. I haven’t found them too difficult to physically plant – I just throw them in and so far have had good luck. They are expensive per bulb, but …. what else are we going to spend our money on (now that Obamacare is in place?) I planted a number of alliums of all types this fall, as I like to do every year (you can read about it on my blog These alliums are more reliable perennial than Foxtail lilies, but still, they peter out after a few years and I do love them. Tulips I now only force. Daffodils, well I did plant 600 …. but that is another story. I will go down on all fours for perennial daffodils.

    I’m with you — I LOVE alliums. I will be kicking myself come spring/summer for not planting more. But I’ll look forward to seeing your bonanza pictures. Thanks the heads up! -kris

your turn

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s