Now’s the Time to Plan Foolproof Fall Bulbs

Ornamental alliums are easy, affordable and exquisite!

This article originally appeared in NextAvenue in September 2012.

It’s September. The garden is a near-impenetrable maze of tomatoes, beans and squash interwoven with dahlias, zinnias, cosmos and basil plants so big they’re flopping into the paths. Dill and poppy seed heads on leafless brown stalks pop up here and there in the jungle to add a piquant hint of decline.
We’re not talking the “sweet disorder” of the classic poem here. It’s more like vegetative bedlam, and it happens every year because I long ago declared that August 15 would be No More Make-Tidy Day. From that moment on, I continue harvesting, but I stop staking, deadheading and neatening paths. Weeding — at least of the obsessive type — is also on the don’t-bother list.
This used to work fine. I got to enjoy the food and flowers without worrying about chores, and just before I got sick of the chaos, an early September frost would come to start clearing the decks. But more recently, the timing of frost has changed: It gets later and later every year.

This hasn’t altered the “down tools” date, but it has made me even more grateful for fall bulbs. If I couldn’t look forward to the annual ritual of setting the fat globes in the earth and dreaming about starting fresh with a clean(ish) slate, I think I’d go out of my mind.
On the assumption that you also take comfort in this reliable form of delayed gratification (and are thus already well supplied with opinions about tulips and daffodils), today’s cheerleading will be reserved for ornamental alliums, the members of the onion family grown for their flowers, not their seasoning powers.
There are dozens available, in a wide range of sizes and shapes from the small wispy golden allium flavum to giant Globemaster, the one with solid purple flowers the size of soccer balls. 
Here’s why I adore ornamental alliums: They’re gorgeous and easy to grow, deer don’t eat them, bugs don’t eat them (although snails and slugs do, alas), and bees and butterflies love them. To add to these charms, they keep coming all summer. Although they are planted in fall, like hyacinths, narcissus and all the rest of the “spring bulbs” that do bloom in spring (but not after), the alliums come in so many species that if you plant a wide enough variety, something will be coming into bloom from May until September.
I never met an ornamental allium I didn’t like (with one exception, the rather squatty A. karataviense), but I do have favorites. Here are a few of them, organized by bloom season.

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Early (late May through June in the Northeast):

  • Chives: The quarter-size purple flowers are almost as well known as the leaves and are a popular edible garnish. They would be even more popular if more chefs would pull them apart rather than use them whole. They’re also very pretty arranged with other easy-to-grow early bloomers like Johnny jump-ups and forget-me-nots. 
  • Star of Persia: This one is rightly regarded as tops among the beauty queens for reliability. The silvery purple flowers do well in a wide range of soils and climates, and the seed heads are almost as ornamental as the flowers.
  • Allium schubertii: My friend Lois is not alone in calling this one “the fireworks flower” — perhaps because it has no common name. Whatever you call it, it’s absolutely stunning, as long as the background is a simple one that shows off the architecture of the enormous pink blooms.

Mid-season (June–July)

  • A. azureum: The small flowers are a deep, true blue that comes across best if the bulbs are planted in groups of 25 or so. These are the only alliums I’ve ever had trouble keeping from year to year, but the color is so terrific (and the price so low, at dealers like Van Engelen) that I don’t mind planting new ones each fall.
  • Nectaroscordum siculum var. bulgaricum: There’s no accepted common name for these clusters of cream and pink bells on 18-inch stems, but they used to be Allium bulgaricum, which is at least easier to say. Clumps are long-lived but slow to spread. If you want a lot, you have to plant a lot.

Late (July–September)

  • Garlic chives: The allium year closes as it begins, with a plant that’s equally edible and ornamental. The bladelike leaves do taste like a cross between garlic and chives, while the pure white flowers are lovely and long-lasting in bouquets (only the cut stem smells like chive). Because they seed themselves everywhere, be prepared to weed out extras.

My Bulbs Shopping Strategy 
Mail order: I start buying fall-planted bulbs in late spring, when the first Brent and Becky’s catalog appears, offering a discount for early commitment. Then, usually sometime in September, I realize there are essentials, like the it’s-really-blue-not-purple grape hyacinth called Valerie Finnis, that I somehow neglected to buy enough of. Credit card, stand by for order number two.
Order number three gets placed in late October or early November, when bulbs are on sale at super-duper low prices. No matter how many I have already, how could I resist this chance to add a few more? (Not giving the sellers my e-mail address would probably help. It’s difficult to ignore a message whose subject line includes the phrase “40 percent off!”)
In brick-and-mortar shops: Being the impulsive type, I also buy bulbs in garden centers, even though there isn’t as much choice, prices are usually higher, and quality is compromised by store temperatures (mail-order bulbs are in controlled storage until they’re shipped).
I don’t buy from open bins, though. The chance of mislabeling is too great. This is not because the supplier has behaved badly but because my fellow shoppers are sometimes … well, this is a family website. Let’s just say that many people who decide they don’t want bulbs they have already removed from the bins also decide it doesn’t matter which bins the bulbs are returned to.

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Planting Tips
The goal with spring-blooming bulbs — all of them, not just alliums — is to have them make lots of roots but little or no top growth before they go dormant for the winter. That means planting after the soil cools, but at least six to eight weeks before the ground freezes.
It used to be safe to start planting in mid-September in the Northeast, but now I shoot for somewhere between mid-October and Thanksgiving. (Gardening books written in the last century often say starting at Thanksgiving is too late for best results, but that was then.)
On the other hand, it’s wise to get perennials into the ground early, so there’s no time to lose if you need some companions to hide ornamental alliums’ one down side: The leaves of most species have very short life spans and already look ratty before the flowers bloom.
To get the full show-stopping effect, flowering members of the onion family should come up through something leafy that hides the yellowing foliage, preferably something that will provide a flattering background. Astilbes, ferns and artemesia work well with most varieties, but very short-stemmed A. shubertii looks better emerging from a low groundcover like mother of thyme.
Happily, the yellow-leaf problem is no problem at all in the cutting garden, where I plant more and more alliums each year. The flowers last a long time in the vase as well as in the garden, and if you have a good supply for bouquets, you’ll never have to choose between ornamenting the landscape and decorating the house.

Leslie Land
By Leslie Land
Leslie Land began her career as one the original chefs at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, Calif., but she is best known for writing books and articles about gardening, food and cooking, and for her co-starring role in the book and PBS TV series, The 3000 Mile Garden. Her syndicated cooking column, Good Food, ran for more than 20 years in newspapers from Philadelphia to San Francisco, and for seven years she wrote the Garden Q&A column for The New York Times. After retiring from the Times, she established a virtual magazine, inkitchenandgarden.com, where she wrote about gardening, food and agriculture, among other things, and indulged her inner publisher by giving space to guest posts from Eric Larson, the Manager of Yale's Marsh Botanic Garden, and from her husband, Bill Bakaitis, an expert mycologist and outdoorsman.

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