Fragrant bulbs are a hit with gardeners

Bulb flowers can add perfume to the spring garden

These days, the phone constantly rings off the hook at Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Va. The weather in many parts of the country has been unseasonably cool, and gardeners are feeling eager to plant daffodils, tulips, crocuses, hyacinths, and other bulbs in time for glorious blooms come spring.

Becky Heath arrives breathlessly at the phone for an interview, sounding almost relieved to get a break from taking orders. She clearly enjoys having a chance to chat about the passion that's at the core of the business she and her husband run on their 10-acre farm.

As third-generation bulb growers and co-authors of the book "Daffodils for the American Garden," the Heaths have seen quite a few trends come and go in the wildly popular gardening business. One of today's most exciting, Mrs. Heath says, is the abundance of information and resources available to educate the novice - from books to classes to tapes, CDs, and Web sites. "It doesn't seem scary to try something new anymore."

And as people become more savvy, their choices have become more sophisticated.

"They realize there's something other than yellow trumpet daffodils," she says. "They might order coral ones, or daffodils with yellow petals and white cups, white petals and salmon-pink cups, tiny ones, or heirloom varieties."

In addition to offbeat color choices or varieties, people are increasingly interested in fragrant flowers, says Heath. She is reluctant to recommend specific types because "every nose is different," but she does name her own favorite. "Baby Moon is a miniature daffodil that can perfume an entire room," she raves. "It probably has the biggest fragrance per square inch of any daffodil."

"People are definitely sniffing more," says Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. "Not only in the garden, but also in the home, with scented candles, aromatherapy, and bath stuff."

This is an outgrowth, Ms. Ferguson says, of our fast-paced society's yearning to slow down and connect with nature.

"Also, people associate certain fragrances with certain times of year - the smell of lilacs with running to catch the school bus, for instance - and they are trying to ground themselves through these scents that take us back in time."

Among daffodils, Ferguson gravitates toward Bridal Crown, which she says has an "incredibly musky fragrance and is also a late bloomer."

Although the tulip gets a bad rap as a flower lacking in fragrance, she says, "It can often resemble cloves, honey, or citrus." For instance, "Monte Carlo smells like honey, and is also beautiful with its bright yellow color and double petal that resembles a peony."

She also favors the Ballerina tulip - which is tall and long-stemmed with a pointed blossom and has an "intensely tulip fragrance" - and Actaea, which has an old-fashioned look, white petals with an orange/red center, and a spicy fragrance. This tulip will even perennialize, she says, adding: "Unless it is overwatered, which, by the way, is the common bane of bulbs."

Hyacinths are also ideal for scented gardens, but they are not quite as popular yet in the US as in Europe, especially England, says Ferguson. "The English are mad for them."

Both the Heaths and Ferguson host Web sites. But there's still a certain reluctance to buy online, Heath reports. She says that roughly 30 percent of their bulb business is conducted online, with another 30 percent via catalogs, and the remaining 40 percent by phone.

Even those who don't order bulbs the e-way will find that the Internet offers a wealth of information geared to help gardeners get those bulbs into soil before snow blankets the ground.

Speaking of which, there's no need to fret if you haven't gotten your nails dirty yet. Just after a hard frost and before the ground freezes, or when the nighttime temperature is consistently below 50 degrees is the ideal time to dig into that soil.

In Northern states, prime time for planting fall bulbs is usually anytime between mid-October and mid-November. In warmer climates, planting time lasts until Christmas and into January.

But even if you don't plant by the book, those crocus, hyacinth, and daffodil bulbs are likely to put on their springtime show, Ferguson says. "Bulbs are preprogrammed to grow, and designed by nature to be hardy. They will surprise you. Even if they're planted upside down, they will usually pop right up."

Then she adds, "If only everything in life were that easy!"

For more information, see the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center's Web site, www.bulb.com, or visit www.brent andbeckysbulbs.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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