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Great Gardening: Spending a memorable time with a master of the flowering bulbs

A bus ride with Brent: That’s how I will remember a great day of the Garden Writers’ conference in Atlanta last week. It was a long bus ride to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, but I sat with one of the icons of the industry, Brent Heath of Brent & Becky’s Bulbs. There’s something special about hearing a proud, just slightly senior, gentleman telling his family’s story and sharing nonstop bulb knowledge for a hundred miles. It was a privilege.

Brent Heath’s grandfather moved to Gloucester, Va., in 1900 and began to grow daffodils. Now they handle every kind of bulb you can think of, and grow, hybridize and test bulbs on their 28-acre farm. The team includes wife Becky – a dynamo and leader in the world of garden writers and professionals – as well as son Jay and his wife Denise, making it a fourth-generation business. They dedicate at least 8 acres to educational purposes – tour groups welcome.

Bulbs are the batteries

There’s nothing like learning from a storyteller, and Brent’s imagery has already made me a better bulb teacher. “Bulbs are the batteries, and the leaves are the solar collectors,” he said. And doesn’t that just explain things perfectly? That is why those solar-collecting leaves need to grow in full sun for at least eight weeks in most cases, or until they yellow. That is why we don’t cut off the leaves or tie them in knots or braids after the flowers have faded: The leaves must take in sunlight to power those underground batteries.

I asked Brent about fertilizers. Experts have traditionally stressed the role of phosphorus for bulb development, and many high-phosphate or bone meal products accompany bulb sales every season. (We learned that bone meal often attracts critters, so other products have become favorites.) Brent recommends compost instead of fertilizers. On their farm they truck in compost and horse manure, and those beds produce the tallest cannas and dahlias as well as the best spring bulbs and perennials. In Western New York, where heavy, clay soil predominates, compost is also essential for lightening the soil so that bulb roots (and other plant roots) can penetrate.

But what if you just can’t dig another trench or hole, even to turn in some compost, because your soil is too heavy and you are tired? Brent and Becky’s website suggested my own favorite method for mass bulb planting: Rough up the soil surface, spread some compost, scatter some bulbs, and cover them with more compost or compost-rich topsoil (to the depth recommended). Water, and after a freeze, add mulch. It’s a raised bulb bed.

The soil pH is also important for bulb success, as any master gardener will teach you. The pH number represents the acidity or alkalinity of the soil, and either pH extreme prevents key nutrients from being absorbed even if those nutrients are present in the soil. (Soil microorganisms require certain soil conditions including pH in order to live, and those microorganisms are the vehicles for transporting nutrients into the plant’s root hairs.) A pH of 6.0 to about 7.0 is what most bulbs need for optimum growth.

Another Brent-ism stuck with me as a reminder of what bulbs need: “Don’t you like to sleep in a cool, dry bed?” Sure do – and it reminds us to be sure that bulbs have good drainage. They will rot in soggy soil or in a basin of clay.

Timing counts

Bulb Question No. 1 in my world is: “How late in the fall can I plant these bulbs?” I advise planting the sooner the better once the weather starts to cool. “Learn the rooting temperature for your bulbs. Most bulbs grow roots best when the soil is between 50 and 60 degrees,” Brent said. So to give the bulbs time to grow good roots, plant them when the soil temperature drops below 60 degrees – when it feels cool to your hands. Roots will grow even when the soil temp is 40 degrees and they will stop when the soil freezes. After a freeze it’s smart to add mulch on top of the soil, to decrease the freeze/thaw fluctuations and limit the rotting or desiccation possibilities.

In an ideal fall the soil temperature would remain uniform, so that roots grow steadily without becoming soggy or dried out. That’s easy if the bulbs are growing in a garden center’s cooler, but outdoors temperatures often swing wildly in the early autumn. Watch for extremely dry soil through the autumn weeks, and water if the bulb bed is going completely dry.

And what if you can’t get the bulbs into the ground before the November or December freeze? The answer is not storage on a shelf. Spring-flowering bulbs need a winter, whether real or simulated, so you will need to start the process called “forcing.” It’s a topic for much later this season – I promise to help – but now you have many fine weeks in which to shop for and plant bulbs.

About the deer

Deer don’t eat daffodils, hyacinths, alliums, camassia and usually crocuses – although someone will always claim that Bambi did indeed consume them. Tulips are especially delicious for deer and rabbits, but two tips may encourage you to try them again: Species tulips, the low-growing ones, usually don’t interest the animals, according to my own and others’ experience. They are short, and tend to spread or naturalize better than taller tulips. Two familiar groups within “species tulips” category are Kaufmanniana and Greigii. (Try ‘Red Riding Hood,’ for example.)

Brent recommends sprinkling a repellent product such as Plant Skyd around the bulbs upon planting and over the shoots immediately as they begin to emerge. Many other products work to some extent, so try them, and remember to change products periodically since deer are suspicious of new smells.

Bulbs are the easiest flowers to grow and a joy to see in spring. Look for them in your local garden center. If you can’t find them, Brent and Becky ( will be happy to help.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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