Elizabeth Lawrence (1904 – 1985) was a popular American garden writer of the mid-twentieth century who gardened in North Carolina; her garden still exists in Charlotte, NC and is open to the public. Her writing reinforces one’s appreciation for the old garden writers and, as usual, there is considerable gardening insight, with an historical dimension added to the equation. I’ve excerpted here a chapter, Little Bulbs in Pots, from her 1957 book, The Little Bulbs. We’re a little out of season perhaps (unless fall has arrived early – a distinct possibility this year) but you can return to it in the fall for some ideas on planting small bulbs in pots for display next spring.
My excerpt comes from a Duke University Press edition of 1986, with an introduction by Allen Lacy. If you enjoy this excerpt then you might keep an eye out for the book as Elizabeth goes into much detail, and rhapsody, over the growing of these little bulbs in the garden. Tacked on to the excerpt is her bibliography, For the Armchair Gardener, pointing the way to other writers on the subject from earlier times. As she herself wrote: “Gardening, reading about gardening, and writing about gardening are all one; no one can garden alone.”
The Little Bulbs
Elizabeth Lawrence (1904 – 1985)
Little Bulbs in Pots
Winter-flowering little bulbs bloom indoors almost from the time the cold of winter takes the color from the garden until the spring sunshine puts it back again. Getting the bulbs ready for forcing should be considered part of autumn’s round of chores. The little ones are the best of house plants for they fit into pots small enough for a window ledge, and they are easily managed and long in bloom. Since most of them are cheap enough to discard after flowering, they need window space only when in bud and in bloom. During that time their only requirements are a cool room, not over seventy by day not under thirty-five at night, and the sun afforded by a south or east window.
Bulbs to be forced are best planted as soon as they are available, usually September and October, for the longer they are kept out in the air the less vigorous they will be. It is better to regulate the succession of bloom by scheduling the times that the pots are to be brought in to light and heat, rather than by spacing the times of planting.
Pots must be clean, and new ones soaked in water for a day or two before they are filled. A concave stone or fragment of broken pot goes over the drainage hole, then an inch of pebbles for a small pot and two inches for a large one; a layer of damp sphagnum over the pebbles keeps them clear of soil. Another layer on top of the filled pot keeps the soil from drying out. The peat is all the better for having some pulverized leaf-mold mixed with it. A little cow manure can go in too, if it is old enough to powder, but Mr. Houdyshel prefers a tablespoon of bone meal and a teaspoon of blood meal to every six-inch pot of soil. Commercial fiber does as well as the peat and sand mixture as a potting medium, is cleaner, and saves all of this trouble.
The pots should be large enough so that the bulbs may be planted with ample soil beneath and an inch or two above them. Bulbs in pots need shallower planting than those in gardens. Water them thoroughly but gently, and then let the pots drain before storing. From three to five small bulbs – or even eight to twelve of the very small ones – are right for a five- or six-inch pot.
For successful bloom the pots must be left in a cool, dark place until the bulbs are well rooted. Pots of hardy bulbs can be sunk in the open ground as soon as they are planted, and left for two months (six weeks may do, if you can’t wait), or until they are wanted. Cover the pots with a layer of sand, then a layer of soil, then a thick layer of leaves or litter. When the pots are brought indoors, they must first go into a cool storeroom or light basement, and then introduced gradually to light, warmth, and water before they are put in direct sunlight. When fully in bloom, the flowers will last longer with some shade.
All sorts of small hardy bulbs can be grown indoors, although some do better than others. Spring-flowering crocuses are good; the named varieties make the most show – if a big show is what is wanted. They force quickly, needing only six or seven weeks for rooting. They should be left in the dark until the tops are about an inch high, and the flowers should be kept in a cool place away from the afternoon sun. The fall-flowering kinds can be potted and set directly in the window without any rooting period at all. Perhaps this is the best way to grow the late and fragile species, too, for no matter how lovely they are out of doors, some of the blooms will be frosted. Grape hyacinths do well in pots, especially the one called Early Giant. Snowdrops are good if the room is cool enough. Allow eight bulbs to a five-inch pot. Scillas, puschkinias, and chionodoxas bloom indoors, and Iris reticulata is a window-garden favorite. Six of the little netted bulbs of the iris will fit into a four-inch pot. If planted in October they will bloom for Christmas or soon afterward.
Half-hardy bulbs intended for winter flowering indoors must be potted up and left to root in a cool, dark, airy place (not a closed closet). The rooting place should never go higher than forty to forty-five degrees, but the cooler the better (as long as they do not freeze). Water them once when they are planted, and keep them barely moist until they are well rooted. When top growth starts, bring them into a lighter and slightly warmer place for about a week, increasing the water supply gradually.
Of the small winter-flowering members of the iris family, the freesias, babianas, and sparaxis are best for window gardens. The delicate tints and heavy fragrance of the freesias and babianas, and the brilliant red and gold of sparaxis, bring to the indoor garden all of the extravagance of spring. Since the tops and roots of the bulbs start at the same time, they are an exception to the general bulb-forcing rule and do not need to be kept in the dark at all. As soon as growth starts they must have plenty of water. All require full sun, air, and a cool room – not over sixty-five degrees for the best results; they will not bloom if it is much warmer. Top size freesia bulbs, from a half-inch to an inch in diameter, grow best and bloom best. They cost so little more than lesser grades that it is better to have a few of them than more of a smaller size. Bulbs planted early in the fall sometimes bloom for Christmas. They can be planted later to lengthen the season, even through November, although the late ones will have short stems. Six large bulbs of freesia or sparaxis are enough for a five-inch pot. They need an inch of soil for covering. Perhaps twice as many babianas can go into a pot of the same size, but even though the bulbs are the smallest of the group, they must be planted two inches deep. Babianas and sparaxis are not very well known, but they should be, for they are more easily grown than freesias.
Most of the small amaryllids are summer-flowering, but some of the cyrtanthus bloom in pots in winter. Those that I have had grew in the garden, and it is difficult to find specific directions for pot culture, for each species differs in habits and requirements, and what will do for one will not suit another. In Herbertia, 1937, Mr. Ruckman gives his method for growing three kinds: Cyrtanthus mackeni (which blooms in late winter), and two others of uncertain identity. “How such choice and easily-handled bulbs as cyrtanthus can have been neglected so long is a mystery. The only trouble seems to be to get the bulbs in the first place. The bulbs are small and should be potted up singly in three-inch pots in the soil mixture used for hybrid amaryllis, with the upper quarter of the bulb above ground. They start into growth in November and bloom during January and February. After blooming a strong growth should be encouraged until the foliage ripens, usually about the middle of June. From then until November they should be kept dry or nearly so, as are other deciduous amaryllids when in their dormant state. The bulbs form offsets rather freely and these should be kept growing with the old bulb until the pot becomes badly crowded, as is the practice with vallota, the Scarborough lily. Occasional waterings with liquid manure both before and after blooming are beneficial. A little of the old surface soil may be removed from the pots and replaced with fresh just before growth begins.”
The aforementioned soil mixture for hybrid amaryllis is made up of good loam and sand with equal parts of powdered leafmold and old manure. Other species that have been grown in pots are C. ochroleucus, which blooms indoors in February, and C. parviflorus, in early spring.
Nerine filifolia is particularly valuable for its blooming season, October to December. Since the foliage is evergreen the bulbs are sent at any season, but spring is the time to pot them for they travel better then, and are more easily established. They can be had in late summer in bud, which is a temptation, but if my experience is any guide it is a lure to be avoided. The bulbs should be planted with the soil up only to their necks, six to a six-inch pot.
There are several window-garden favorites in the lily family, among them the colorful Cape cowslips. These should be potted in August and September for late winter bloom, and never later than October. The golden Lachenalia aurea and the coral L. pendula superba sometimes bloom for Christmas. The later-flowering L.tricolor is most amenable in pots, and the most frequently offered. Plant six in a six-inch pot, and cover with only half an inch of soil.
Mr. Houdyshel considers Allium triquetrum the most effective species for pots, even better than the more commonly-grown Naples onion. I have had it only in the garden, and I do not know when it blooms indoors, or how well it looks. However, it is one of the best alliums for use as seasoning, and might find a place on the kitchen window sill if that is not too intimate a place for a plant so strongly scented. A. neapolitanum has the advantage of being entirely without the garlic odor, and in the variety grandiflorum it is a striking plant. Put from three to five bulbs in a five-inch pot, and cover with an inch of soil.
Another Herbertia (Vol 10, p. 165) entry offers the information that, “as a double-duty bulb, Brodiaea uniflora is priceless because it forces easily. If it is potted in late October one has the cheery blue stars week after week, through November to January. All that is necessary is to pot the corms (six to a four-inch pot) in a good soil mixture and water regularly. A sunny window is the best. There are no requirements for rooting in the dark, or for storage or for growing temperatures other than those of the ordinary living room. In order to prolong the blooming period into February and March, a few dormant corms saved for the purpose are added to each pot in January in spaces left for them. In April or May the growing plants should be lifted and planted outdoors to make their full growth and then to remain dormant until it is time to lift them again for potting.”
Where the weather is too severe to have them out of doors, the winter-flowering hoopskirts do well in pots, and even where the bulbs are hardy some gardeners prefer to grow them indoors. Their early flowering makes them especially desirable. In the Rock Garden Bulletin for January, 1955 (p. 15), Mr. Harold Epstein deals with Narcissus bulbocodium monophyllus and the varieties foliosus and romieuxi: “The ideal growing conditions are in pots in a cool greenhouse (temperature not lower than forty-five degrees F) where they usually come into bloom here (Larchmont, New York) in mid-November and generally last to the end of the year. They must be fully ripened and allowed to be well baked and dry through the summer. They can also be cultivated in coldframes under glass sash and when ready to bloom they are brought indoors preferably into a light cool room. Under such cool conditions the flowers with their protruding style and golden anthers will be long-lasting. My bulbs have been in the same soil for the third season but will be transplanted when dormant during the coming year.”
I have planted achimenes in the garden a number of times, but without much success. Tubers of the common kind, the rather dull, dark, violet-flowered one, generally bloom from the end of August into October if they are planted in April. Tubers left in the ground never bloomed the second year, although they are said to be hardy to Washington, D.C. In Charlotte, Mrs. Whisnant has very good success with the ones that she pots in spring and grows on the terrace. Out of doors they must have shade and plenty of water. As house plants they are fairly demanding, too. Mr. Houdyshel says that they do not bloom well in parts of California where the nights are cool: “The name is said to mean that they do not like the cold. This may be fanciful but is nevertheless true. They like warm days and nights. [Thus their wide acceptance as house plants.] A good temperature will not be under sixty at night and up to eighty daytimes, and higher will not hurt them. Pot the tubers in a horizontal position and cover with about an inch of soil. We mulch the surface with a thin layer of sphagnum moss to prevent erosion when watering. Keep them only a little moist until growth is started. When growing well, keep them wet.” An occasional watering with liquid manure is advisable. From one to five tubers can be grown in a five-inch pot, but Mr. Houdyshel recommends ten-inch baskets, lined with sphagnum and filled with fibrous peat or peat and coarse leafmold in equal parts. Gradually decrease watering after flowering ceases. When the foliage has died away the pots can be laid on their sides and stored dry, in a place where the temperature does not go below fifty degrees.
Finally, there are the winter-flowering wood sorrels (oxalis). These are perhaps the easiest of all the little bulbs to grow in pots, and one of the most satisfactory, for they are long in bloom. Plant the bulbs two inches deep, three to a five-inch pot if they are large, and twice as many if they are small. Wood sorrels can be shipped as late as the middle of October, but since they may begin to sprout in August they should be ordered early. Any soil will do, although a rich mixture is appreciated. A cool room and full sun are necessities. The bulbs do not need to be started in the dark, so the pots can be put into the window at once. The tuberous rooted sorts start slowly. In the summer the pots can be taken out of doors and laid on their sides to dry off. The bulbs will bloom year after year.
Three bulbs of the fall-flowering Oxalis bowieana can be planted in a five-inch pot. This is another of the little bulbs to be grown outdoors in summer, indoors in winter in all but frost-free areas. The bulbs must not be forgotten in the rush of fall chores, for they may be caught by early frosts if they are left in the garden. Also good is the buttercup-yellow O. cernua, called Bermuda buttercup. It comes from South Africa, but is naturalized in Bermuda and Florida. There is also a double-flowered form that makes a smaller plant.
O. crassipes is evergreen and ever-blooming. After it has done its duty in the garden in the summer, it can be brought into the house to bloom in winter. The Grand Duchess is probably a form of O. variabilis, so called because the flowers vary from rose to purple to white. As I know them they are a lovely clear pink, a color I have never seen in other species. They are very large, too, and stand well above the low leaves.
O. hirta is different from the other species in that the plants are trailing and the leaflets narrow. It blooms late in the fall and is one of the tender sorts. Because the stems hang down, this is a good plant for hanging baskets or a wall bracket. A single bulb will do for a four-inch pot. Unlike the other species, this one will bloom in part shade, and even opens its glowing flowers on gloomy days.
For the Armchair Gardener
Aiken, George D., Pioneering with Wild Flowers (Putney, Vermont, 1933).
Bowles, Edward A., A Handbook of Crocus and Colchicum (New York, Van Nostrand, 1952).
Brown, M. J. Jefferson, The Daffodil, Its History, Varieties, and Cultivation (London, 1951).
Carleton, R., Hardy Bulbs (New York, Rinehart, 1955).
Cave, Norman Leslie, The Iris (New York, Chanticleer Press, 1951).
Dormon, Caroline, Wild Flowers of Louisiana (New York, Doubleday, 1934).
Everett, Thomas Henry, The American Gardener’s Book of Bulbs (New York, Random House, 1954).
Gray, Alec, Miniature Daffodils (New York, Transatlantic Arts, 1955).
Hall, Sir Alfred Daniel, The Book of the Tulip (London, 1929).
Jacob, Rev. Joseph, Hardy Bulbs for Amateurs (London, 1924).
—, Tulips (New York, F. A. Stokes, 1912).
Loudon, Mrs., The Ladies Flower Garden of Ornamental Bulbus Plants (London, n.d.).
McFarland, J. Horace, Garden Bulbs in Color (New York, Macmillan, 1938).
McKinney, Ella Porter, Iris in the Little Garden (Boston, Little, Brown, 1927).
Norton, Claire, How To Grow Spring Flowers From Bulbs (New York, Doubleday, 1935).
Peters, Ruth Marie, Bulb Magic for Your Window (New York, M. Barrows, 1954).
Rockwell, Frederick F., The Complete Book of Bulbs (New York, Doubleday, 1953).
Synge, Patric M., Flowers in Winter (London, 1948).
Weathers, John, The Bulb Book (New York, E. P. Dutton, 1911) .
Wilder, Louise Beebe, Pleasures and Problems of a Rock Garden (New York, Garden City, 1937).
Wister, J. C., Bulbs for American Gardens (Boston, The Stratford Co., 1930).
—, The Iris (London, 1927).
Alpine Garden Society Bulletin Secretary, Lye End Link, St. John’s, Waking, Surrey GU211SW.
American Rock Garden Society Bulletin Buffy Parker, 15 Fairmead Road, Darien, Connecticut 06820.