From her first devil’s ivy in a macramé planter to thousands of plants both hardy and tender, Jean Starr is driven to put plants to the test in her corner of the world. She shares the results in magazines and her blog,

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Bulbs Like it Hot
by Jean Starr       #Bulbs   #Flowers

Garden as though you will live forever.

William Kent, English architect, interior designer, landscape gardener, and painter, and a late-18th century pioneer in the creation of the “informal” English garden.

Rain lilies are available in pink, white, and yellow, with Zephyranthes primulina offering up a soft shade of sunshine.


Go ahead. Indulge your immediate gratification streak.

It’s easy, with fully grown, already blooming, scientifically combined pots jamming the aisles of your favorite garden centers. If you have the time, a full tank of gas, and a pocket full of plant funds, there is nothing you can’t find.

But, let’s say you like surprises, and don’t mind waiting a bit for the big floral payoff. If you take William Kent’s advice and garden as though you’ll live forever, you will give bulbs a shot.

In addition to Gladiolus and Dahlia, hundreds of plants fall into the category called geophytes, a catchall term for plants that grow from bulbs, rhizomes, corms, and tubers. Many are not as well-known as tulips (Tulipa spp.) or daffodils (Narcissus spp.), so you’ll have to be on the lookout when visiting your local nursery. For even more variety, order them in their dormant state from online specialists for an adventurous walk on the gardening wild side.

Here are just three of the most easily grown:

An unlabeled lily of the Nile (Agapanthus spp.) was just crowded enough in its pot to provide a wealth of blooms for several weeks.

Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus spp.)
This plant’s common name has nothing to do with its origin. Agapanthus comes from South Africa, a place on the continent that the Nile doesn’t reach. The first batch of this amaryllis relative was found near Cape Town, a settlement formed as a pit stop on a trade route by the Dutch in 1652. European tradesmen passing through, to and from Asia, took them back to their home countries, making agapanthus just one of the many treasures introduced to western gardeners around that time.

It’s worth it to look for an agapanthus that’s already potted this time of year. Find one that’s practically escaping from the pot, its thick roots ready to climb out like a toddler from its playpen. The price you pay for one in bloom takes into account the years it takes to get to arrive at blooming size. I found just such a specimen at the end of June last year and jumped for joy. It sported two blossoms when I brought it home. After a short break in late July, and with regular food and water, it kept sending up flowers well into September.

If you purchase an agapanthus bulb, start in a small pot. It could take up to three years to bloom.

Tuberoses (Polianthes spp.) now come in colors besides traditional white. ‘Pink Sapphire’ is a compact variety that is said to be just as fragrant as the original.

Tuberose (Polianthes spp.)
Agapanthus isn’t the only plant that likes a very cozy home. Scott Kunst, founder of Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has grown tuberose for the past 15 years. He recommends growing the tubers in pots here in the Midwest. “A pot is warmer on a sunny day than in the ground would be.” he said.

Like any plant from a hot climate, tuberoses prefer a long, hot summer. And although they come from a hot and dry corner of Mexico, they also need a fair amount of water, especially when the bulbs are tightly planted.

Tuberoses have become one of Old House Gardens best sellers. Kunst recommends planting them in pots close together with their tips barely covered with soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. And here is where the patience comes in. It can take up to a month for the leaves to emerge.

“A tuberose bulb has to be a certain size before it blooms,” Kunst said. It’s especially true in the Upper Midwest, as our summers are shorter than they are in Polianthes’ native habitat. “The bulbs should be as large as a man’s thumb.”

Still, depending on our weather, the amount of sunlight, and added nutrients, it’s possible a pot of Polianthes will be engaged in a race with the first frost. It’s another good reason, Kunst said, for growing them in pots. If they haven’t bloomed and it’s getting cold, you can bring them in and enjoy their fragrant blooms on a sunny windowsill.

If you’d like to save the tubers for the following year, Kunst suggests putting pots in a basement where temperatures are in the 60s F to let them dry out. Each Polianthes tuber blooms just once and then forms offsets for the following year’s blooms.

“You probably will see one more bloom the following season from the same potting, but after that, they will get too crowded and will have to be divided and repotted,” he said. “Get a head start by placing the pot on a heat mat a few weeks before your last spring frost.”

The old-fashioned tuberoses are white and come in single or double-flowering options. Kunst said the advantage of the singles is that they don’t get as waterlogged as the doubles, an advantage when in bloom on tall stems that could benefit from staking. Look for newer varieties with pink, and even yellow flowers.

Rain lilies are available in pink, white, and yellow, with Zephyranthes primulina offering up a soft shade of sunshine.

Rain lilies (Zephyranthes spp.)
Tropical rain lilies are adorable in Azalea pots, or any pots that are wider than they are tall. Commonly called fairy lilies or zephyr lilies, they grow from small bulbs that like to be planted close together. The first year, they might bloom a bit sparsely, but in succeeding seasons, the bulbs will multiply, creating spots of pink or yellow when you really need it, usually around the end of July.

Because they are small, it’s easy to find room for them indoors in a cool, dark place, which is where Kunst keeps them during the winter, alongside the tuberoses.

Zephyranthesare commonly called rain lilies because they often come into bloom after it rains. They can’t seem to help themselves, even when they live the lush life in a pot on the patio and receive all the moisture they need. I was so pleasantly surprised by their sudden appearance after a summer rain. I grew both Zephyranthes primulina and Z. robusta in pots last summer. They bloomed quickly with flowers sprouting in early May, late June and again in late July. I’m expecting more this year from these members of the amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) family.


A version of this article appeared in a May/June 2017 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Jean Starr.


Posted: 06/01/17   RSS | Print


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