Flowering bulbs give the garden a kick-start in the spring. Some of them pop up and bloom through the late winter snow, while others come up later in the season. They generally need little care, coming back year after year.

They do have to be planted in the fall, after the first frost but before the ground freezes. Nancy and I usually wait until mid- to late October.

When most people think of bulbs, they picture daffodils and tulips, which are necessities for the Maine garden. But I am going to ignore the common bulbs today, because I have written about them before. The focus for this column is on some more unusual bulbs.

My experts this week are from companies outside of Maine that Nancy and I have done business with and liked. I chose Scott Kunst, founder of Old House Gardens in Michigan, because his company specializes in old and rare bulbs. I chose Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Virginia partly because he is scheduled to appear Oct. 13 and 14 at a program at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.

Kunst, who has a degree in historic preservation and lives in an old house, likes the heritage bulbs because “if you go back into the past, you have a lot more choices. One of the great untapped reservoirs for gardeners are these bulbs, which might be lost to the market. Older flowers are often more fragrant and just different from what you find at every garden center.”

Kunst surprised me by mentioning peonies right off.

“People often don’t think about planting peonies in the fall, but they have been planted in the fall since the early 1800s. They are a great plant and are, of course, extremely winter-hardy.”

Getting a little bit more unusual, he recommended chionodoxa sardensis, or Turkish glory of the snow, which he first saw at Wave Hill in New York.

“It’s a little shorter, darker blue” than the traditional glory of the snow and has reddish stems, Kunst said. “It’s one of those plants that once you get them, you don’t have to do anything. You put them under a shrub or in a semi-empty space that you don’t want to fuss with, and you get a little drift of blue every spring.”

He also likes snake’s head fritillary, or fritillaria meleagris, for a partly shady area next to woods. “It’s a nodding flower, very graceful and wildflower-looking,” he said.

Kunst is also a big fan of hyacinth, which used to be the most popular fall-planted bulb but has fallen out of favor in recent decades.

“I love the fragrance in the garden,” he said, “and it has a wide range of colors. The only other things in bloom that early are crocuses and daffodils, and they have limited colors, but hyacinths come in all of the tulip colors.”

One of his favorites is the hollyhock double hyacinth, which is always the last hyacinth and comes in a really deep rose with double pug-faced florets.

Kunst also advised to be careful where you plant early-spring bulbs.

“You aren’t going to be out in the yard like you are in summer,” he said. “So plant crocuses in a warm corner where you see them from the kitchen window, and hyacinths by the door where you are coming and going and can really enjoy them more.”

Heath is a big fan of alliums, high-desert plants that are usually hardy to Zone 3, which covers even the coldest areas of Aroostook County.

They like a lot of moisture in the fall but prefer it fairly dry in late spring and summer, which means that if you have what Heath called “a mindless irrigation system” that runs whether it has rained or not, you might not want alliums.

“Alliums are great meadow plants,” Heath said. “They look like lollipops waving above the grass.” He said they might seem expensive, but they double each year. They vary from 6 inches tall to 4 feet tall.

One of his favorites is allium christophii, “which gives a lot of bang for the buck for the beauty, for the length of (its) bloom time, and because it tends to dry in the garden and look good as well.”

He also likes allium triquetrum, which has nodding white flowers and naturalizes well.

Another bulb Heath enjoys is camassia, which are related to the alliums and are critter-proof. They are native to the high meadows of Washington, Oregon and California, and “Sacagawea actually saved Lewis and Clark’s skin by feeding camassia bulbs to them,” Heath said.

In recognition of that, Brent and Becky’s has named a bulb camassia leichtlinii Sacagawea. Camassias have a linear feel and bloom from white to purple in May or June.

Heath also likes glory of the snow, but a different version than Kunst recommended. His is chionodoxa luciliae, which is shade-tolerant and will actually produce fruit in three to seven years if the conditions are right. It also makes a carpet of color.

While crocuses are fairly common, Heath likes crocus tommasinianis because they naturalize well and come in a wide range of colors.

He also likes winter aconite, a relative of the buttercup; galanthus or snow drop; English bluebells or hyacinthoides non-scripta, which has wonderful blue flowers and does better in Maine than it does in Virginia (where Brent and Becky’s is located); and dwarf iris histroides types, which come in blues, whites and burgundy.

Heath recommends you plant bulbs 10 to 15 per square foot if they are small, and about four bulbs per square foot if they are large. He also says the depth of the hole should be three times the height of the bulb, and that you should have a distance between them of three times the width.

So many bulbs, so many choices. You don’t have to ignore daffodils and tulips. Just put something more unusual with them.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

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