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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Plant Life Valerie Easton

Bulb Bonanza

With so many possibilities, just dig in and take a chance

GLOSSY BULB catalogs can be as paralyzing as they are inspiring. Our heads spin with possibilities while the catalogs pile up, bristling with sticky notes marking our indecision. The days are darkening, the weather cooling. It's time to make the tough choices and send in the bulb order. It's a triumph of optimism to spend good money on gnarly brown lumps, but how to choose between 23 kinds of crocus and hundreds of daffodils? No wonder we dither.

So here's a hopeful bulb story to get you going. One of the best things that happened in my garden last spring was a mistake. I somehow ended up ordering two different kinds of allium, 35 bulbs one year and 35 the next. The result of this shoddy record-keeping was a month of sequential flowering that looked as if I'd planned it. Allium giganteum bloomed in early May with fat purple flower balls atop willowy stems. Allium 'Purple Sensation,' paler and more iridescent, took over the show for another two weeks of color, but not before the two kinds overlapped for one gloriously purple haze of a week.

So don't itemize and research so much you miss the chance for serendipity. If you order generous numbers of the same or similar bulbs, and plant them in well-draining soil, you'll love your garden next spring and summer. Especially if you order some of these overlooked, special and brand new kinds of bulbs:

Alliums are a good choice for so many reasons. They are easy to grow and return dependably year after year, with an impressively high "wow" factor in relation to the space they inhabit. New this year are Allium 'Ambassador,' a larger, more vigorous version of A. giganteum. This statuesque beauty has flower globes 7 inches across. And then there's A. 'Pinball Wizard,' with shorter stems and even bigger flower heads in silvery lilac-purple. But not every ornamental onion is tall and purple. Allium flavum has firework-like explosions of golden-yellow florets. Allium 'Hair' is more curiosity than flower, with green tentacle-like petals — or at least I think they're petals. (All from Van Engelen.)

Where to find them

Find these bulbs in local nurseries or www.arboretumfoundation.org), or from these catalogs and Web pages:

John Scheepers, www.johnscheepers.com; 860-567-0838.

Van Engelen, www.vanengelen.com; 860-567-8734.

Brent and Becky's Bulbs, www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com; 877-661-2852.

High Country Gardens, www.highcountrygardens.com; 800-925-9387.

Tulips are among the most familiar of flowers, yet you've never seen anything like Tulipa 'Fire of Love.' This Greigii tulip borders on lurid, with wavy leaves striped and mottled in gold, red and green, topped off with lipstick-red flowers. The overall effect is positively vibratory. (From Brent and Becky's Bulbs.)

Oriental lilies set the bar for voluptuous looks and fragrance. The new Lilium 'Chambertin' is billed as the darkest Oriental lily ever produced. Its raspberry-purple flower brings a splash of intense color to the July landscape. When picked and brought indoors, it takes on rich mahogany tints. The broad, creamy blooms of the Asiatic lily 'Courier' seem designed to light up the long twilights of summer solstice. (Both from John Scheepers.)

Camassia are Northwest natives with tall, pointed spikes of star-shaped blue flowers. Commonly known as "wild hyacinth" or "Indian hyacinth," these elegant flowers naturalize easily and bloom most of the month of May, in shades from sky to deep periwinkle. Because their looks are almost ethereal, camassia read best in the landscape when planted in large drifts or clusters. C. quamash 'Blue Melody' has yellow-edged leaves and dark blue flowers; C. cusickii is soft wisteria blue. If you have a hard time deciding, Van Engelen offers a Camassia Sampler Special.

If you like the idea of prepackaged bulb gardens, consider High Country Gardens' practical assemblages. The Hardy Mediterranean Bulb Collection flowers in shades of blue, white and pink from spring through early summer. Or perhaps the driest, toughest areas of your garden need a dose of the Inferno Strip Spring Bulb Collection? These xeric wildflower bulbs, including tulips, muscari and crocus, are guaranteed to multiply and bloom spring after spring.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.

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