The Gardener's Apprentice

Return Engagement

There is nothing like a tulip, hyacinth or daffodil in its first spring.  All the energy that growers in the Netherlands or elsewhere have pumped into the bulbs is distilled into glorious floral display.  Tulips stand strong and proud, with magnificent multi-colored petals.  If the daffodils’ trumpets could sound, they would be loud enough to hear for miles.  And hyacinths…First year hyacinths are so lush and bodacious that they sometimes keel over under the weight of their own florets.

These first year beauties are the ones you see in really well-tended home landscapes, not to mention display gardens, botanical institutions and other horticultural showplaces.  To ensure a reliable annual magnificence quotient, gardeners in those places lift all the spring-flowering bulbs after the blooms fade.  Even if those bulbs are replanted somewhere in the fall, they will never again be front and center in public displays.

We home gardeners often do not have the time or energy to lift all the bulbs every year, so we have to find ways of coping with the fact that many of our first year show horses will be somewhat diminished in their second season of bloom.  Tulips are the hardest to predict.  Many popular modern varieties should really be treated as annuals.  Species tulips and older varieties are more likely to return for an encore at least once and sometimes more than that.

In my garden I plant a number of fresh new bulbs every fall because I am a firm believer in the idea that you can never have too much spring color.  Whether winter is mild or ferocious, I know that by March I will have had enough of it.  There is no better seasonal harbinger than a big, ambitious daffodil.

Still, I am also drawn to the well-loved hyacinths that have come back, colorful and fragrant, year after year.  The flowerheads are no longer the fat columns of tightly packed florets that made their debut in my garden five or more years ago.  After the first year, the number of florets diminishes and the hyacinths look a little less regimented and a little more relaxed each year.  The colors are still beautiful—from pristine white, through yellows, apricots, pinks, blues, blue-purples and darkest purple—but the florets have more elbow room.  The stalks can hold up the flowerheads without a problem and one or two hyacinth stems are still enough to perfume an entire room.

I am always surprised when tulips return, but the surprises are welcome.  I remember being especially impressed with a planting of ‘Shirley’ tulips that I made a decade or so ago.  ‘Shirley’ is a mid-twentieth century tulip that is yellow-cream with purple edges when it opens.  As the blooms age, the cream becomes lighter and the purple edging spreads over the petals.  My ‘Shirley’s were showstoppers in their first year, so I was pleased to see them again the following spring.  In the second year, the flowers were a bit smaller, the stalks a bit thinner and the purple a little less pronounced.  The overall effect was still beautiful, just a bit more winsome and less assertive.  The ‘Shirley’s returned for a third and final year without losing any of their charm.

Daffodils fare better in the return sweepstakes, with many varieties surviving and multiplying nicely even when totally neglected.  At our family summerhouse, a small patch of traditional “pheasant-eye” daffodils has been appearing faithfully every spring for as long as anyone can remember.  I can attest to the fact that they receive absolutely no care, because frequently there is no one around to provide it at the right time.  On the other hand, the daffodil leaves are free to fade and die back on their own without anyone worrying about their being unsightly.

When spring-flowering plants return smaller and more relaxed, they remind gardeners of the wildflowers they once were, long before hybridizers got their hands on them.  I like the effect and since I garden for myself rather than for public approval, I am delighted to let the returnees have their moment in the sun.  Tenacity should be rew

Winsome and still bright blue--Second year hyacinth

Winsome and still bright blue–Second year hyacinth