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Using Summer Bulbs

Summer bulbs take up the slack in the garden after spring’s daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths have faded away. Lilies, dahlias, cannas, caladiums and other summer bulbs are lively, undemanding plants that flourish when the heat is on. They’re right at home in both formal and informal gardens, and they are showy and reliable performers in flower pots and window boxes.

Most summer bulbs are tropical or sub-tropical plants. Here in our latitudes, they are planted once the weather warms up. They spring quickly to life and produce long-lasting flowers or dramatic foliage -- or both -- from early summer until the first frost. Even in areas where the winters are cold and long, summer bulbs can be expected to put on an impressive show.

Summer bulbs are especially well-known for their leafy exuberance, and elephant’s ears, caladiums, and cannas bring a tropical mood with them wherever they are planted. Victorian gardeners planted cannas as centerpieces in their fancy bedding schemes, but their height also makes them a good choice at the back of a flower bed, either in soldierly rows or grouped shoulder-to-shoulder with tall castor bean plants or elephant’s ears. Hummingbirds will find their flowers very quickly.

Piet Oudolf, the renowned Dutch plantsman and garden designer, many of whose naturalistic plantings are inspired by the beauty and diversity of American’s native prairies, often combines summer bulbs, including lilies of all kinds, with ornamental grasses in strikingly original perennial beds. In 10-foot deep flowerbeds at the New York Botanical Garden, Oudolf mixed lilies with purple coneflowers to dramatic effect. He also plants dahlias and gladiolus with fall-blooming sedum, Japanese anemones, and the bottle-brush blooms of fountain grass. His choices are unexpected, and the effects are surprisingly elegant.

Summer bulbs can be planted in spring as soon as it's comfortable to be out in the garden in shirtsleeves. Most need a sunny spot (caladiums and calla lilies are exceptions), but they are not particular about soil, as long as it drains well. If you’re not sure where to place them, plant a row of summer bulbs in the vegetable garden, and harvest the blooms for bouquets all summer long.

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Gardening Tip of the Day

  • Fall salad crops can be difficult to start because garden soil is often very warm when seeds need to be planted. To trick the internal mechanism that allows seeds to germinate in warm ground, freeze them for a week or two.
    Or start seeds indoors in flats where it’s cool, and transplant seedlings into the garden immediately after germination. Be sure to include winter or cold-hardy lettuce varieties when planting. They will take temperatures down into the 20s with little or no protection. ‘Little Caesar’, Buttercrunch’ lettuces, ‘Frizz E’endive and ‘Baby’s Leaf Hybrid’ spinach are good choices. When the thermometer dips below freezing, lay an old bed sheet or floating row cover directly over the lettuce, endive and spinach for protection.