The spring flowering bulb is to my front plot as Ricky Ponting was to Test cricket. Which is not only to say it lies dormant before a period of great work. It is also to suggest its bad reputation derives less from uneven form than it does from our unreasonable expectation. Do not suppose that a brief, glorious spring show can take the garden to victory. Do suppose it can score critical runs each season.
Just as Ponting was never cut out to be captain, the tulip is no garden mainstay. Call it in when you need a star and not a leader. It is partially for this reason that near-neighbour Iris, the greenest and most established thumb in my street, refuses to grow any bulb save for the class-conscious jonquil, which, as I have told her, is a nominative crime.
“Why would I bother with those princesses?” she asked me from behind the pineapple sage (an indestructible working girl whose scarlet bloom will keep us warm all winter). Like Iris, I am an enormous fan of the tough and pretty bush, but I cannot agree the bulb – or the rhizome, bulblet or corm – is garden royalty.
“The tulip is a courtly queen, Whom, therefore, I will shun,” wrote the English humorist Thomas Hood in an 1861 verse, which shows us not only how not to write lyric poetry but how not to garden.
Tulips are not posh totty but one of the most gratifying instants a gardener can dig. Buy a bulb now, whack it in a pot or the soil about 12 centimetres beneath the surface – the crude algorithm for spring bulbs is to plant them at three times their own depth – and watch this easy courtesan explode for a marvellous fortnight.
Stu Burns, horticulturist proprietor of advisory service The Garden Doctor and former consultant to the ABC’s Gardening Australia, is eager to cultivate an understanding of the bulb as easy-care. “Bulbs are a good way to start gardening and in many ways don’t need the care that seed-grown plants do, as they are effectively mature plants in a very compact form.”
The most beautiful flowers in the garden demand so little of you. Water them when they begin to grow. Throw some well-rotted cow or sheep manure on the garden bed if you can be arsed; they’ll grow in their first season in any case. Newly purchased spring bulbs, which you can start planting now at two- or three-day intervals to ensure an extended show, contain all the nutrients they need to flower for a single season.
If you like, you can treat your bulbs as annuals; which is to say as just one glorious explosion. Spring bulbs will bloom even in low-light conditions on a humid Sydney balcony. Otherwise, the sun-loving perennial bulb will test your patience twice. First – and Iris cites this as another reason not to grow her namesake – you must let them die down until they are a wrinkly brown flap. Then the dead foliage can be easily separated from the bulb by a quick yank and they can again be hidden from the sun. Second, you should dig them up and then “force” them into believing they live in Amsterdam by whacking them in the fridge for most of winter. Use an old egg carton and write, “This is not for hollandaise” on the front and pop it in the crisper.
In Canberra, or any area with a frost, this forcing is unnecessary; even for the tulip. But entre nous, in Sydney, you can hope for a second or third show from a tulip, like the tall Monet, bred to those conditions. In my Melbourne garden, I haven’t been arsed to dig up my discount tulips for four years. They’re a little smaller and sparser than in their debut so I’ve just ordered another hundred end-of-season remnants for $44 online.
The view of bulbs as difficult frippery is common and, in Iris’s case, more-or-less pardonable. She is a frugal 82 and began swiping cuttings from neighbours long before Dutch migrants brought their expertise to Australia’s temperate zones in the wake of World War II. Even when families such as the Tesselaars, who still sell from their farm in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, began local propagation and sale, buyers were generally gardeners to the rich. Hyacinths – once a trade object every bit as inflationary as the tulip – used to cost more than the earth that sustained them. Now, we can order them at a dollar a bloom.
Tulips and irises are even cheaper and personally I prefer their scentless charm. The long racemes of the hyacinth produce a stench more sexually mawkish than Boyz II Men. But it ought to be said that this early spring bloomer – which, if you must, plant now and in its visually comic Muscari or “grape” genus – is much-loved by beneficial insects. For all its autoasphyxiation, the hyacinth does wake up bees early in the season. However, my aversion to this frilly sex toy is sufficiently strong that I take care of spring bee needs with little crocus corms. These dazzling babies “naturalise” well; which is to say, they multiply on their own and tend to prosper season after season in neglect.
Similarly, bluebells (Scilla hispanica, or the Spanish bluebell) are much loved by pollinators and are one of the very few spring bulbs that will bloom recurrently in shade. Again, plant now and do try to purchase bluebell bulbs in pale pink and white rather than the traditional shade. Poor planning can produce a spring garden more woefully dominated by cerulean than a performance by the Blue Man Group.
The tiny spring star (Ipheion uniflorum) will do little to tempt bees but it is also a top-drawer naturaliser. I planted these bulbs in drifts along with a pollinator’s seed medley (I like the Good Bug Mix for its creditable flowers and organic blandishments on the label) beneath deciduous trees a few years back. They continue to bloom for six weeks every season, even when the leaves of the old fruit trees grow back to rob them of sun. You can do this with little bedding freesias, too, which cost virtually nothing and multiply as quickly and colourfully as awareness ribbons.
The Ornithogalum, often sold as star of Bethlehem, is a lovely, hardy South African pointy enough to please any fan of Euclid, and the Ranunculus is a daffy Middle Eastern ballerina. In my view, genus Narcissus, or daffodils and jonquils, are overpriced and overrepresented. Grow a lofty, white-bearded iris with yellow flames at its elegant centre instead. When it has flowered in late spring, separate the rhizome with a knife and give some of it to Iris. And dare her to call it Princess Ponting.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "Light bulb moment". Subscribe here.