Autumn is a bittersweet time in the garden. A beautiful, transitional season takes us from the last glow of summer to a muted dormancy as we hunker down for the first snows. It’s saying farewell to active outdoor gardening.
It is not too late, however, to make some strategic additions. Think back to last April, when the colorful riot of spring flowers stood stark against the barely waking landscape.
You may even recall a few spots in the garden that could use a splash of that early color. Spring flowering bulbs are usually discounted this time of year, so take advantage of the bargains. They can be planted anytime until the ground freezes.
If you’ve ventured down this road before, you know that some bulbs are favored by uninvited garden guests. Moles, ground squirrels and voles may make a meal of them before they have a chance to sprout. For those that escape that fate, rabbits and deer find the emerging leaves and flower buds a refreshing spring tonic.
There are tricks and techniques to protect your garden additions, but fortunately there are also many types of bulbs that have no appeal to these marauders. Among the best are crocus, snowdrops, frittilaria, grape hyacinth, Siberian squill and the ever-popular daffodil.
Snow crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) is a classic harbinger of spring and also the most rodent resistant of its kind. Lovely six-petaled blossoms in shades of lavender, blue and pink will pop up through the winter-dormant lawn or in masses at the base of hedges, at garden’s edge or beneath trees.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are another early bloomer, with nodding white flowers. They thrive in shaded locations, and blossoms are fragrant.
Fritillaries are a diverse group. The diminutive checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris) sports single nodding flowers, patterned with a unique mauve and white grid. Impressive crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis) reach an imposing three feet tall, with regal clusters of pendant orange or yellow blooms. All fritillaria are avoided by hungry animals.
Grape hyacinth (Muscari) and Siberian squill (Scilla siberica) are tough little bulbs that will readily naturalize in the lawn or as a carpet beneath shrub plantings or trees. Both provide a welcome display of blue flowers, as scilla’s graceful nodding bells or muscari’s dense clusters of small, nearly round flowers which resemble grapes and are sweetly fragrant.
Daffodils or narcissus are the most traditional of the lot. They are long-lived plants, gradually spreading into lovely drifts in the garden, and make great cut flowers. Thanks to decades, if not centuries of hybridization, an incredible variety is available. Choose from classic forms with one flower per stem and an assortment of trumpet sizes and shapes, or forms with multiple flowers, which are often fragrant. Double-flowered forms have a rosette for a trumpet, and the split cup or butterfly types have an open trumpet that looks like a second contrasting flower overlaid on the first.
Trumpet color may be the same as the petals or contrasting. Yellow and white are the most common, but hybrids with orange, red, green or pink are also available. It’s hard not to be tempted by the pink forms, always lovely in packaging photos. When planning your color scheme, however, bear in mind that most of these start out a warm peach and fade to pink as the flowers age. I’ve tried pairing these varieties with pink tulips or bleeding hearts and been unhappy with the effect.
Choose a cold, sloppy day to shop, and wait for one of our remaining sunny afternoons to plant your treasures. Tuck them into the garden and look forward to the show in spring—taking comfort in the knowledge that you didn’t just feed the critters.