– Posted in: Bulbs, Garden Design

Written by Tovah Martin

We are thrilled to have Tovah Martin contributing to Gardening Gone Wild. She is a freelance writer, lecturer, and author of over a dozen garden books including the recently published The New Terrarium. Tovah says that she has a problem with bulbs. It’s called obsession. The fires of infatuation were fanned when she chronicled Piet Oudolf and Jacqueline van der Kloet’s New York Botanical Garden installation for Seasonal Walk at NYBG. And multiple trips to Holland only made her heart race faster into the bulbosphere. Read more about what Tovah’s up to on her website. Fran Sorin

DSC_0641.JPG-allium Shoulders hunched, hood up, muffler enwrapped, I saw the flashlight coming up behind me. So I fell into step with my neighbor on our evening walk. Briefly, we exchanged pleasantries. Then she got immediately to the grit. “So,” she wanted to know, “you’ve been digging…” and she let it dangle. I knew what she was hinting at. I knew what was on her mind. “2,250 bulbs,” is all I answered. “Wait and see.”

I’d already fielded inquiries at the dump. You know the dump – the social hub of any thriving town. “Been messin’ around with that front lawn at your place again…?” and “Don’t you think enough is enough?” or “Lotta’ hard work…” Back at my place, a car slowed to a stop the other afternoon, rolled down its window, and a head popped out to yell, “I got a bulldozer you can borrow…” He didn’t finish the thought. And frankly, I didn’t want to break my momentum. (1,023…1,024…1,025…) A dog-walking couple saw a flashlight angled to illuminate a crouching figure near the road at dusk. “Just came over to make sure you were okay. Are you really…planting by moonlight?” They threatened to call the paper (I write for the paper), but they were just joking. The truth is, I know what’s going on underneath it all. They’re just feigning concern, they’re just playing the fool. More bulbs are what they’ve been hoping for all along. Secretly, they’re all rubbing their hands together in anticipation of spring. Deep down inside, they can’t wait.

Okay, here’s the story. No one ever complimented me on my crabgrass. My front lawn was no better or worse than anyone else’s in town. In fact, from 35 mph, it’s a vast improvement over the fertilized/herbicided versions during a drought. But it was equally boring. It sits across the driveway from my perennial border, but most of the joggers/dog walkers take the perennial border in their stride – it’s been around for 15 years. The other side of the driveway was just a large expanse of yawn (spelling correct on that). I put in a magnolia, a hydrangea, and a viburnum. But still, it was a big shrug.

Meanwhile, I’d been hanging around Piet Oudolf and Jacqueline van der Kloet’s plantings too long, I guess, because I yearned for something similar. Not only did the volume and loose lushness appeal, but the overall concept of merging expanses of seemingly natural plantings was seductive. Still, my only encounter was in public spaces.

I think the neighborhood assumed that I was going right back to the island bed fad of the 1980s at first, because I started small with a little blob of Heuchera villosa ‘Caramel’ (the only heuchera that doesn’t melt in bright sun – but this summer was the harrowing exception. Disappeared entirely. Anyone want to weigh in on whether I’ll see ‘Caramel’ alive again next spring?). The year before, the heucheras were constantly drenched. So they never really filled in. That’s when I called in the bulbs. It was sort of a last ditch solution to save the scene by burying some Allium karataviense among them. I sort of blindly inserted them irregularly (I call Jacqueline van der Kloet’s method “confetti”). Suddenly, in spring, the planting popped. Did you ever notice that dog walkers tend to look at the ground? Well, they were steering the Boston terriers up the driveway. “Tell me the name of the round things,” they’d beg, handing me a biscuit to placate the pooches. If the dogs behaved themselves, I spelled out karataviense.

 DSC_0343.JPG-allium #2 Allium karataviense afforded several months of wonder to win me fame well into Independence Day. First week in June, it was fiery orange heuchera foliage beside jewel-like pink orbs above blue accordion-pleated foliage. The flowers took their time before fading and the foliage lingered even longer. Meanwhile, I was expanding. Digging up more real estate and later on, adding bulbs. Mostly in the allium and fritillaria department, because the passing puppies have done nothing to diminish my vole/chipmunk/squirrel issues.

I’ll catch you up to date on the expansion in a future blog. Stay tuned. In the meantime, I need some help. I want to move out of the margin of safety rodent wise and into other bulbs like crocus and that sort of thing. The crushed oyster shells that work wonders on tulips haven’t protected tastier little morsels. I got Brent on the phone (you know Brent Heath from Brent and Becky’s Bulbs) and he claims that Crocus tommasinianus is rodent proof. So far, the squirrels have robbed me blind of crocus except a few token bulbs by the front door. Brent also shared another trick. He uses Plantskydd. Nothing smells worse than Plantskydd, I’ve got to say. It’s dried blood, so you can just imagine. If you survive an application without losing your lunch, then you’ve got a more ironclad digestive system than mine. But for anyone who’s olfactorily challenged, it’s the way to go, according to Brent.

DSC_0217.JPG-goat Another friend, Mary Stambaugh shared her solution and this one is much more user-friendly for all the vegetarians out there (hey I’m with you). “Just place some flat stones on top of your planting until spring,” she suggested. I’m from Connecticut, and we rock. So there’s definitely a readily available surplus of stones free for the schlepping. As soon as I can stand upright again, I’m going to give it a go. Unless you have a better idea…

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at

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Fran Sorin
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A Year In My Garden January 9, 2011, 4:51 am

You don’t get too many gardening posts that read like spy stories – I’ll be looking out for further installments

But really, isn’t it a little like 007 out there? People stroll by
(in their trench coats) and surreptitiously pull out cameras (iphones) from
the depths of their pockets to furtively take a snap (better that than
snitching a cutting, right?). It hasn’t quite come to cloak and dagger in my
neighborhood yet, but just wait until spring…So glad you’re on my team
with this. Talk to you again soon.

Gatsbys Gardens January 9, 2011, 7:02 am

I use Plantskydd also and it has worked better than anything else I have tried. But, you need to be diligent about replacing it each fall and spring. I am thrilled with Heuchera Southern Comfort for it’s fall and winter color.


Actually, Eileen, because the ground froze solid before we could get
our deer fencing finished, I careened down to the store in hot pursuit of
more Plantskydd for the conifers. Maybe the cold had zapped my nose, maybe
it was mind over matter, maybe they’ve toned it down some, but the smell
didn’t ruin by day at all. Heuchera Southern Comfort looks lovely. Do you
say that it can take blazin’ sun? Sun is my conundrum.

Lisa at Greenbow January 9, 2011, 7:42 am

Tovah I cracked up at the image of your neighbors coming over to see if you were ok planting in the moonlight. This whole post sounds familiar only I don’t plant near as many bulbs as this. Wow. You go girl.

Well, Lisa, by the time planting was over, it was a toss up between
going to the chiropractor or the asylum. In the end, I figured neither could
really help me in the long run. I intend to do more damage next year. But
are you with me in wondering when they’re going to invent a bulb detector so
we don’t dig up last year’s efforts when we put in more, more, more? Anyone
got ideas out there

Randy January 9, 2011, 9:37 am

Sounds like a big project, looking forward to seeing the results. We have maybe 10 different crocuses and lots of squirrels. Our mouser cat keeps them in the trees so they rarely bother the garden.

You also could place hardware cloth over the bulbs when you plant them.

Your mouser needs to teach my kitten a thing or two, Randy. Einstein will probably be an indoor cat, but he definitely hasn’t got the hang of mousing yet. Last night he caught his first mouse and gave it a guided tour of the house before dropping it off in my office. Thanks a lot. Hardware cloth? Good idea, but I’d probably forget to pull it up (you do pull it up, right?) before the crocuses make their early spring appearance.

Carolyn @ Carolyn's Shade Gardens January 9, 2011, 10:19 am

I had eight big beautiful Heuchera ‘Caramel’ in a fairly sunny area going into the drought and heat this summer, and only one melted with very little additional water. I don’t think it’s coming back, but the rest are thriving as are all my other H. villosa cultivars. Love the idea of the A. kara., which I have other places, planted with ‘Caramel’. I agree with Brent (of course) that Crocus tommasinianus is the way to go–it has naturalized all over my garden. Also rodents don’t seem to like snowdrops and daffodils because I believe they are both slightly poisonous.

Thank you for the heuchera advice, Carolyn. Brent’s theory on the bulbs is that the rodents follow their sense of smell. Maybe snowdrop bulbs are scentless? Daffodils are poisonous, I believe. I’ve been told by flower arrangers that they even taint the water when added to a bouquet with other flowers.

Michael B. Gordon January 9, 2011, 12:57 pm

Great post, Tovah and welcome to the blogosphere! I wish I was a fly on your magloia last autumn. I have had good success fighting the rodents with Bulbocodium vernum, Anemone blanda and A. nemorosa, Chionodoxa and until last year Camassia. For some reason, I can’t keep even the easiest daffodils happy. Looking forward to seeing photos of your bulb crop this spring!

Meet Michael Gordon, everyone. He’s a sort of gardening Robin Hood. He has a superdeluxe personal garden. But also, in his little New England town, with his merry band of dedicated volunteers (Laura Trowbridge, below, among them), he takes poor forgotten spaces and transforms them into rich public gardens. Check out his blog – Michael’s also a plant aficionado extraordinaire. When I read your comment, Michael, I remembered that Brent was nudging me toward bulbocodium as a look-alike, rodent-free substitute for crocus. My camassia was creamed by deer this spring, anybody else have this issue? I love ‘em, but so do the deer.

laura trowbridge January 9, 2011, 1:17 pm

Hi Tovah,
I like your entry. What animal is that in the photo?

I was wondering if someone would ask, Laura. That’s Beatrix, one of my Saanen goats. She’s giving you a smooch.

allanbecker-gardenguru January 9, 2011, 3:04 pm

1] Thankfully, you are not afflicted with arthritis, bursitis, rheumatism or PMR, all of which get in my way of planting large quantities of spring flowering bulbs.
By the way, isn’t it irksome when otherwise friendly neighbors find it necessary to tease us for gardening “over the top”?

2] Regarding Heuchera that disappear: Recently, Noel Kingsbury posted a list of short lived perennials on his blog site that included Heuchera. Is your answer there , perhaps?

3] I have had success keeping squirrels away by dusting the bulbs with a blend of chili flakes and chili powder, after they are placed in the hole, and by sprinkling more of the mixture on the earth after the hole is filled. However, I do understand, that in some climates, squirrels are so ravenous that this trick won’t work.

4] Glad to have met you through this introductory blog but was disappointed that it was so short! 🙂 – I could have read on and on for hours.

Trust me, Allan, by the time I was finished with autumn, I felt like I was afflicted with all those issues. I feel for you. Gosh I’m glad you mentioned the lifespan of heucheras. I was tempted to give more a try. Seems as though the H. villosa clan isn’t so ephemeral. No? The squirrels around here pretty much spend their time throwing themselves in front of fast moving cars, it’s the voles that work the underground, I’ve found. See you again soon with the next blog – I’m planning to talk about those “otherwise friendly neighbors.”

Chris Maciel January 9, 2011, 7:38 pm

Tovah, you’re going to have put up some kind of markers where you put the bulbs or you’ll have an awful time next year when you want to put plants there. What I’ve done is put small, I mean slender, bamboo sticks in a few places where you see the bulbs blooming in the spring. Once the bulbs are done you’ll have only the markers to guide you.
Wonderful blog…can’t wait to see what spring brings!

I knew that I’d keep hitting land mines if I didn’t get the perennials in first, Chris, so that’s what I scrambled to do early last autumn (more flashlights in the dark of night), planting the initial influx of bulbs around them. But you can bet that bulking up on bulbs is inevitable, so your advice is golden. Bamboo sticks is something I’ve got in surplus and, with 2,250 bulbs to keep tabs on, cutting costs is key. Thank you and I can’t wait for spring either (another foot of snow is predicted for tomorrow here).

rob cardillo January 9, 2011, 7:50 pm

Hi T! Welcome to GGW! Enjoyed your tale of obsession and am looking forward to more. That allium/heuchera combo is a killer…

Hey the Robman! Photo praise from the country’s primo photographer is more than I’d hoped when writing this blog. I confess that the visual element of this gave me the jitters…I’ll never be equal to it, but I’m going to try not to ruin anyone’s vision.

Anna Flowergardengirl January 9, 2011, 11:41 pm

I don’t have a single bulb in my gardens but I’m willing, ready, and able. I’m warming up to the fact after hearing about the glorious display it will bring. I keep meaning to add bulbs–but hydrangeas keep stealing my attention.

I’m looking forward to seeing you and welcome to GGW–lovely and smart crowd around here—you better get a new set of galoshes.

Anna, we’re going to have to DO something about that bulb-bereft garden of yours. Show me the hydrangea that pops up before anything else in spring and waves the glad hand before a single sprig of grass has greened up. I don’t care if you believe in Tinkerbelle, the Beatles, or anything else = you need the magic of bulbs. I am loving meeting the GGW family, thanks everyone for making this novice blogger feel at home.

gina January 10, 2011, 1:06 pm

Between November and February, I’m often outside digging after dark. So, I laughed at how you described your neighbors – my neighbors are exactly the same! They love my garden, but they think I’m nuts as I continually dig out more sod. : ) Break out the flood lights … keep on moonlighting. ; )

That’s the outsider’s view of gardening, isn’t it? Gardens are things that just pop out of the earth. Only gardeners realize that gardens have to be drawn out. Sometimes there isn’t enough daylight to get the mojo rising. But I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, Gina

Joe at Juniper Hill Farm January 10, 2011, 2:47 pm

Hi Tovah! What a grand entrance to the blogosphere! I wish I could say something smart about the constant bulb pillaging by the rodents. The old-timers around here always say…no matter which bulb you plant, always throw in a daffodil or two. I wouldn’t worry about what the neighbors think about the night-time planting, though. After all, aren’t you also the one who walks her opossum in the evening? Looking forward to more great posts!

You know, I’ve thought of the camouflage approach, Joe, but it just seemed too easy. Has anyone else tried disguising their crocus in daffodils? To give you all the back story here, Joe’s a buddy, and has a phenomenal garden that marries deftly honed aesthetics with a rural farmstead complete with oxen, sheep, and pasture land. His own blog is poised to launch, I’ll keep you posted. Joe knows that my town wouldn’t be surprised to find me walking down the street with a pineapple balanced on my head at this point…

PlantingOaks January 11, 2011, 8:20 am

RE: hardware cloth

It isn’t really cloth, it’s more like chicken wire with smaller holes. So, no, you don’t have to pull it up in the spring, the bulbs will come up through the holes.

You can also make a box out of it to surround bulbs from all sides if most of you invaders aren’t coming from the top, but that makes planting in the area inconvenient.

Duh. I just checked it out. I call that wire mesh. As I will reveal at continual and embarrassingly frequent intervals, I’m a complete idiot about all things connected with hardware stores. They pretty much just hand me a dunce cap when I walk through the door and then we play charades while I try to describe what I need without knowing its name.

Kylee from Our Little Acre January 12, 2011, 8:56 am

Tovah, we surely are kindred spirits. I planted over 1,000 bulbs this fall and while some people look at me like I’m obsessed (because I AM, thankyouverymuch), they’re also the ones that say, “I hope you’ll post pictures on your blog.”

There are no pedestrian observers here, since we live in the middle of nowhere, so all those bulbs are for us really. For a northern zone 5 gardener, nothing is as glorious as spring with lots of bulbs blooming.

Hey Soil Sister, pedestrians maybe not – but I bet you get your share of drivebys. And what’s wrong with a little self-indulgence, right? The only way to really pamper yourself is by the thousands. I’m with you.

Lisa Clair January 12, 2011, 5:26 pm

Hey Tovah! Gerard let me know that you were blogging over here, and I’m thrilled to have one more place to read you. Emily Dickinsen gardened by moonlight, wearing a long white dress. I’d say you’re in good company!

Howdy Lisa! To give everyone the back story on this — Gerard would be Gerard Pampalone who blogs like music to your ears (and trowels) on plus he has a fantasy garden AND a garden room to die for. Didn’t know that about Emily, but that’s not the only similarity = I am her height. I’m not going to go into detail there. I’ll leave her to the long white dress…

Susan Morrison January 12, 2011, 9:46 pm

Tovah, I’ve enjoyed your posts on H. Potter’s blog – it’s nice to find you here as well.

2250? SERIOUSLY?? I managed 75 last fall and thought I was a rock star. Clearly I won’t get any neighbors slowing down when they drive by this spring 🙂

So Susan, you must be a terrarium buddy, because that’s my topic at Tell you what – closer to spring, I’ll bundle a blog about my two favorite topics here = bulbs and terrariums. You think 2250 is excessive? Really? I KNOW it’s nuts. But I also know you’ll get your share of rubberneckers…

Debra Lee Baldwin January 13, 2011, 4:13 pm

Hi, Tovah — I’m so pleased to welcome you to GGW and to brag that we’re co-bloggers!

In my area (Southern CA), because of our dry summers, South African bulbs will naturalize. Imagine how lovely my garden was when airy sparaxis and babiana formed drifts of red and blue. But a critter discovered that sparaxis bulbs were tasty, and cleaned them all out. I’ve seeded orange CA poppies amid the babiana—a glorious combo—but I’m still mourning the loss of the sparaxis.

Btw, I wondered why you included a photo of a camel’s nose, ha!

Funny, I’ve been all puffed up because I’m on the same blog with YOU, Debra. But at the same time, I’ve been a nervous wreck about my photography abilities compared to your Rembrandts. And now you tell me that sparaxis grows like a weed. And you off-handedly mention that babiana comes up like hair on a dog’s back = I just worked hours at a friend’s greenhouse to earn one itty bitty pot of Babiana pulchra.

Nancy in Indiana January 13, 2011, 6:27 pm

Loved your bulb stories. I planted ??? in the last 2 years, I lost count. I can’t wait till next spring to see them pop. I haven’t gardened much but in my need to keep busy and love of flowers I have started agian.
I have a big yard I am trying to plant, zone 5 lots of sun in the front, got any suggestions.

You KNOW you’re cookin’ when you lose count, Nancy. In a sunny, dry spot, I just love the species tulips and they perennialize well. I’ve worked with T. clusiana ‘Cynthia’ and T. linifolia, but I’m trying more this year. I also went in big for Allium moly ‘Jeannine’ and how about Muscari ‘Valerie Finnis’ – it’s almost aquamarine and “reads” much better than the darker grape hyacinths that sort of sink into the woodwork colorwise. Give camassias a try – they’re gorgeous, but spray them with a deer repellant if you have a problem.

Cynthia Newby January 14, 2011, 3:24 pm

At least see you, if not raise you–first moved in here in ’96 and with the chores surrounding a new house, spring bulbs went in after Thanksgiving–planting into the dark to finish up found me jumping up and bouncing vigorously every 10 minutes to get the needed help from the motion detector outside lighting system. V Glad I am not on the street where you live……or passersby would wonder even more.

Your friend and Roxbury neighbor, Cynthia

Some people were meant to live in the sticks, Cynthia (in some future blog, I’m going to give you all a tour of this garden – it’s one of the finest mature natural plantings you’ll find in this country, and it focuses on birds).

Rich Pomerantz January 16, 2011, 5:19 pm

Wonderful, as usual Tovah. Now I know I should have come by & documented you with the flashlight digging. That would have been fun, and I KNOW Fran would let me post them here! Well, there is always next year….

I think ggw followers are already familiar with Rich Pomerantz, the photo maestro. He’s one of photography’s foremost Renaissance men – with the greatest of ease he slips between gardens, interiors, people portraits, and animal stop-action shots. Looks like now he’s dabbling in candid camera

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