It must seem strange to nongardening Northwesterners the way we dirt diggers flock to the Washington Park Arboretum’s Fall Bulb and Plant Sale each October. The event is inviting enough, with nurseries hawking every variety of gnarly orb—from ‘California Early’ garlic to ‘Gipsy Girl’ crocuses—plus exotic shade plants, pretty pots, and fertilizers galore. But who wants to buy gardening supplies just when the days are turning short and wet? Summer just brought four long months of (relatively) sunny days for puttering outdoors; now seems like the time to move on to piping-hot lattes and crackling fires—maybe the occasional rake through the yard. Arboretum sale shoppers aren’t clinging to summer, however. We’re taking a proactive approach to next spring: Planted in October and November, precocious spring-blooming bulbs offer eye-popping petal payoff as early as February—before any real warm weather hits, but after many a gray winter’s day.
“Bulbs begin to emerge from the ground when our spirits are at a low ebb,” says Mary Robson, a gardening writer and lecturer with an unfettered adoration for spring bloomers. Robson has planted countless geophytes in her Olympic Peninsula garden, including over 160 varieties of daffodil—the most prolific of the early flowering set. With their verdant shoots and yellow, pink, or creamy-hued petals, daffodils are a great gateway bulb: They require almost no maintenance, and need water only during growth and bloom times, which happen to coincide with Seattle’s rainy seasons. If you reside in some space-challenged urban hamlet or are limited by an already mature garden, consider containing your daffs. “I’ve planted dozens of daffodils in pots,” Robson says. “They do marvelously.”
Bulbs begin to emerge when our spirits are at a low ebb.
Then there are tulips, the flashy starlets of the bulb world. “Gardeners can’t resist the drama of tulips,” says Robson (she ought to know, having once traveled 2,400 miles to Virginia just to purchase hybrids from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a well-known nursery there), “but not all of them survive unless you have a place that gets hot and dry in the summer.” Even with the right conditions, showy hybrid tulips tend to be short-lived in the Northwest, making them good candidates for the container—where any plant nub can grow well given enough soil, sun, and water. Instead of the shallow bulb pans on sale in a lot of nurseries and shops, Robson suggests using large garden pots and fertilizing just after bloom, since new bulbs contain all they need for the first-year’s flowering. If you want to plant tulips in the ground consider little Tulipa batalinii—which tends to top out at only six inches but flourishes year after year here. (Curiously, smaller knobs often seem more resilient to our cold, wet climate than their larger cousins.) Make sure to bury enough bulbs—at least 10 for the little varieties, five for larger ones—to really make a colorful impact next spring.
An equally easy option is camas, a native Northwesterner. It’s a popular choice for fall planting because its flowering spikes—which range in color from sky blue to indigo—bloom early, last for weeks and weeks, and naturalize well when planted in soil that’s wet in spring but dries out in summer. While dormant, camas plants disappear completely above ground, so be sure to mark where you’ve planted them or draw a map for future reference.
All these gorgeous geophytes are available at local nurseries and at the Arboretum Foundation sale. If you decide to join the gloved and the galoshed gardeners this fall, make sure to drop your bulbous bloomers as soon as possible: Fresh bulbs won’t last long out-of-ground, and the almanacs are predicting a long, cold winter.
The Arboretum Foundation’s Fall Bulb and Plant Sale takes place October 5 & 6 outside the Graham Visitors Center at the north end of the Washington Park Arboretum, 2300 Arboretum Dr E, Madison Park, 206-325-4510; arboretumfoundation.org.