I believe it started with a small pot of Albuca shawii, a diminutive yellow flower that dances on thin stems in the breeze. It’s delicate leaves and stems are slightly rough to the touch and they have an unexpectedly nice, somewhat herbal scent. As a garden plant, it serves no real purpose except that it looks good and makes me happy, a fact that is neither here nor there now, but one that mattered a lot then. I’m still a small space gardener, but back then I was an even smaller space gardener and my primary garden space was a roof. There was no ramshackle shed or basement in which to hide the mess or store dormant plants. Every inch counted and if a plant didn’t serve at least two functions, it probably wasn’t welcome.
Since that first pot of albuca (which I still have in the same pot years later), I have gone on to grow all sorts of bulbs in containers of all shapes and sizes with very little effort. I look forward to their yearly appearance and wonder now, why on earth I deprived myself for so long.
This spring I decided it was high time to start encouraging other small space gardeners, especially those of us who garden almost exclusively in pots, to give bulbs a shot. I recently ran into Dugald Cameron at a local garden show and spontaneously asked him if he’d be willing to offer us some advice on the topic. Dugald is kind-of the go-to bulb guy around here. He is the owner and president of Garden Import, a Toronto-based business that specializes in unique bulbs and other interesting perennials that appeal to their personal tastes and meet their uncompromising standards for quality. Dugald is also the co-founder and first president of the Greater Toronto Bulb Society. I appreciate his eye for unique varieties and have bought several bulbs from Garden Import over the years (many of which I have profiled here).
Dugald graciously agreed to share some his secrets for keeping bulbs in pots, and I hope that his advice as well as some of the photo examples I have shown here will encourage you to try growing bulbs in this way.
An Interview with Dugald Cameron of Garden Import
Q. What sort of potting soil is best suited for growing bulbs? Do you have a recipe for mixing your own that you’d be willing to share?
Dugald: Being of a Scottish background I prefer to make my own potting soil. An ideal potting soil will have excellent drainage and some nutrition for your bulbs.
- Dugald’s personal container mix for bulbs:
Equal parts of sharp sand (the coarse kind they make cement out of – not sandbox sand), peat moss and well rotted manure OR leaf mold.
Q. What are your favorite summer-blooming bulbs for small pots?
- For Shade: Begonias
- For Sun: Albuca, Bessera, Calla, Mystic Dahlia, Eucomis, Gladiolus calianthus, Gloriosa, Hymenocallis, Nerine, Ornithogallum saundersiae, Oxalis, Scadoxus, Tuberose, Zephyranthes
- Foolproof Bulbs: Calla, Eucomis, Hymenocallis
All of these benefit from feeding. Sprinkle some slow release organic fertilizer with higher last 2 numbers on the top of the pots after you’ve potted them up. [ed. The last 2 numbers are Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K). The nitrogen (N) number should be the lower. -Gayla. If you can't find an appropriate organic mix, you can try using Bonemeal or Rock Phosphate (P) and Greensand (K)]
Q. Can you walk us through the process of over-wintering tender bulbs? Any tips for those of us without basements, sheds, or other obvious places to store would be especially helpful.
Dugald: Whatever you do don’t take them out of their pots. They keep much better if left undisturbed. Just bring them in before the risk of frost and let them dry out. Pull off the foliage once it’s dried out.
Most bulbs need a rest or dormant period. The easiest bulbs only require a dry, dark place and are OK at room temperature. They may need an occasional drink if your house is very dry but dry soil is best.
- Easy to overwinter: Albucca, Bessera, Calla, Mystic Dahlia, Eucomis, Gloriosa, Hymenocallis, Oxalis, Scadoxus.
Q: When should we pull out overwintered tender bulbs to coax them out of dormancy? Is there anything we should do to aid them in coming back healthfully for another season?
Dugald: When to restart bulbs depends on how much sunny windowsill space you’ve got and the variety of bulb. Eucomis and Calla usually start sprouting all by themselves. Begonias need a kick start in February/March. I’ve got the “how to” on our website.
It is often a good idea to replace some of the soil when restarting your bulbs.
Q. Space is always an issue for people like me, and anything that can stay outside year-round in a pot is always a bonus. Is there anything that you can suggest that will overwinter outside in a pot, in a colder, zone 4-6 climate?
Dugald: The challenge with overwintering outdoors is to keep the pots frozen when they’re outside. They must be out of the sun because the late winter sun will thaw out pots during the day before they re-freeze at night. This freeze – thaw cycle will kill your bulbs.
You need hardy bulbs for this and they are best potted in the fall with the exception of Crocosmia which are available in the spring. I’d recommend the variety ‘Lucifer’ which is by far the hardiest. Lilies are another option. Try to pick ones that don’t grow too tall.
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