Thumbnail Mel Bellar (1)By Mel Bellar

When we were living in Manhattan and I first got interested in gardening we purchased a smallish apartment on the top floor of a brownstone on the upper west side with a HUGE roof deck garden.  Our neighbor Jane, a diminutive, yet feisty, 70-something owned the entire brownstone next door and was an avid gardener. Spring was her favorite time in the garden. At the time, I just didn’t get it. Our roof garden, although quite extensive, just wasn’t all that exciting in the spring. And…somehow I was plagued with garden pessimism. For the first few years all I could see was winter burn on evergreens, deer damage and I wallowed in the “nothing was coming back!” fear that can plague both new and seasoned gardeners. While my development of spring garden enthusiasm was slow, I can announce that I am finally there.

One of our first painfully COLD projects was planting daffodils immediately after we bought our Andes house. We now have thousands and while it improved my outlook on April and early May, it wasn’t enough for me to go gaga for this time of the year

Note, I don’t plant daffodils in my garden beds; they are relegated to the areas outside of the main gardens that I do not mow as I don’t like looking at the fading foliage after they are spent. Unfortunately, daffodil foliage should be left up until it yellows out (end of June or early July) in order to feed the bulbs for a good showing the following year. By the way, I am not a fussy daffodil connoisseur; I plant masses of the simple naturalizing Mount Hood (white on white) and King Albert (yellow on yellow).  However, I have a goal to learn about and collect more varieties to extend the daffodil season.

checker-liliesI have always thought that bulbs were a very cool addition to the garden. My dear friend, and cofounder of Zone4 Landscapes, Nat Thomas, has thousands and thousands of snow drops and other small early bulbs:  crocus, muscari (grape hyacinth), chionodoxa (glory of the snow) and others I don’t remember) planted in his lawn. These ephemerals have the added bonus of working well in the lawn because they brown out and are mowable soon after blooming.  I love his spring garden but when I tried crocus the deer and voles ate them. Nat solved this by building cages out of hardware for his crocus to avoid having underground critters devour them. Despite my attraction to these baby bulbs, it seemed overwhelming to get enough snow drops started in my huge lawn areas to have an impact. Simply put, it was daunting.

Fast forward to several years ago. A client requested “checkered lilies” for her garden. I had never heard of them at the time. This flowering bulb, Fritillaria meleagris, has many common names including: snake’s head fritillary, snake’s head (the original English name), chess flower, frog-cup, guinea-hen flower, leper lily (because its shape resembled the bell once carried by lepers), Lazarus bell and finally checkered lily. Whatever you call it, this cute bell-like flower is either white-speckled on a deep lilac color background OR they are just white; all from the same bulb. Of course, somewhat like shopping for Christmas presents, I can’t buy something for a client without having some for myself, so that year I ended up with a couple of hundred for myself.  I decided also to look for things that naturalize and are critter resistant.  I ordered Scilla siberica ‘Spring Beauty’ (Siberian squills) and planted them all over the garden putting 10 to a hole.  Then, the next year I was thrilled with the little stands of deep blue bells. This past year it was more squills and a whole lot of Chionodoxa forbesii (Glory of the Snow) in blue and violet colors. I am happy to report that they are a huge success. They bloom for quite a while and made walking up to our garden and to the entry steps a real treat. Slowly it has developed into a blub extravaganza, the lingering snow drops (I do have some in my garden), squills, checkered lilies and species tulips.

Note to the gentle gardeners, I generally discourage anyone from planting tulips here in the Catskills unless they understand the following:

They only look great the first year, OK the second and by the third year they are just pathetic little attempts at foliage.

EVERY critter loves to eat them. If they don’t get dug up by squirrels or eaten by voles the deer and rabbits will certainly finish them off.

Species tulips are different, however. They are much smaller and while not so fru-fru, they are quite colorful and add a splash to the early May garden.  They seem to come back year after year in my garden (at least 4 years so far) and they are supposed to eventually multiply though I can’t yet attest to that. I haven’t had them dug up by anything, but the deer do love them so I have to use a deer repellent to be able to enjoy them.

So, at this time of year with great fondness I think of Jane! She was a bulb nut and had lots of them in her city garden, even tulips! She shared her joy with me and I hope that this humble column can share some joy with you. ~

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.