Act now for a bloomin' beautiful garden

IN 1849, J. B (Hendrik) van der Schoot packed his bags in the little town of Hillegom and left Holland, bound for New York and the sights and sounds of the New World. He was a traveller, a term which in those days could denote either a tourist or a merchant bent on trade. Meneer Van der Schoot was both, for stored away in the ship's holds under his name were straw-lined crates filled with an assortment of spring flowering bulbs -- tulips for the most part. Before he returned some six months later, he had visited all the principal cities of the Northeastern United States, promoting the particular brand of springtime floral beauty that had become a Dutch specialty some three centuries earlier.

It was the start of Holland's ``Dutch bulb'' trade with America, a trade that last year passed another significant milestone. By planting some 630 million new bulbs around the country last year, America's increasingly skilled gardeners pushed the US ahead of West Germany as the world's foremost importer of Dutch bulbs.

On a per-capita basis, the Germans and the English still buy and plant more Dutch bulbs in a given year, but the sheer size of the American market makes it a major prize in Dutch eyes. It's also one that is likely to continue expanding significantly. Current figures indicate that sales to American gardeners will increase 21 percent this year, suggesting that the Dutch goal of a billion bulbs a year to the US is not as unrealistic as it once sounded.

When that total might be reached -- it would require an average purchase of 12 new bulbs a year for every US gardener -- is of no great consequence to most American gardeners. More important is the fact that spring bulb planting season has arrived. Bulbs can be set out as soon as soil temperatures drop below 60 degrees F. But planting by the calendar is equally effective: from late September through early November in the colder regions of the country, to clear through December in the Sunbelt.

Newly planted bulbs establish a sound root system in the cool, generally moist pre-winter months. Once established, they readily withstand winter weather.

Bulb flowers do best in partly shaded or dappled light situations. Avoid areas where they will receive the full midday sun. Each bulb contains all that is needed to produce a near perfect flower. In fact, a fully formed miniature flower is contained within each bulb. But bulbs will do even better if they are planted in a rich, well-drained loam. Standing water is one condition that they can not tolerate.

Loosen the soil down to a depth of about 10 inches and mix in liberal quantities of compost or peatmoss. Add a little phosphorous-rich organic fertilizer at this stage. Rock phosphate is as good as the vastly more expensive bonemeal.

Set the larger bulbs -- tulips, daffodils, hyacinths -- about eight inches deep and six inches apart, and the smaller varieties -- crocuses, muscaries, and the like -- about five inches deep and three inches apart. Next, spread a light covering of aged or composted manure over the surface of the soil. Water well and cover with about three inches of organic mulch. Keep the soil moist during dry spells, for this is the period of the year when bulbs establish a sound root system. In the spring, virtually all the energy is directed into the top growth.

Paul Nelson, an expert on bulb culture and professor of plant science at North Carolina State University, recommends spreading a little more aged manure over the surface of the soil in the early spring to encourage the new growth. But to avoid the development of fusarium fungus that might rot the bulbs, he recommends all fertilization cease after the flower buds form.

J. B. van der Schoot, it would seem, started a good thing last century -- for Holland, for the US, and for the W. R. van der Schoot bulb business that today still produces top quality bulbs in the fields around Hillegom.

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