The Indiana Jones of heirloom bulbs

The world would be a dull place for Scott Kunst without two things: ethnic food and heirloom flowers. Mr. Kunst, who runs Old House Gardens, a specialty mail-order bulb company in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a fanatic about variety, whether it's culinary or horticultural. Ethnic food offers a taste of foreign cultures, while discovering a tulip from 1700s Holland connects him with gardens of the past.

Kunst is something of a missionary. His goal is to rescue as many noteworthy old varieties of tulips, daffodils, lilies, and dahlias and assure their availability to gardeners. Since 1993, when he started Old House Gardens, his dedication has earned him a following among garden writers and an appearance on Martha Stewart's TV show.

"I've worked with hard-core plant enthusiasts for many years, and Scott is one of a mere handful ... whose enthusiasm can most conveniently be called 'love,' " says Felder Rushing, garden columnist and radio host, by e-mail from Jackson, Miss.

While other companies may offer a selection of heirloom bulbs, Old House Gardens devotes an entire catalog to them. Kunst's work involves tapping a global network in search of bulbs popular before the 1960s, researching their history, and recruiting small farmers to grow them. Heirloom bulbs are the scrappy ancestors of the pampered bulbs commonly found in gardening centers and catalogs today.

Rare-plant hunters are the explorers of the gardening world, and while Kunst may not need the same derring-do as John Laroche (of "The Orchid Thief" fame), he's done his share of prodding and digging. "I've walked every country cemetery and old neighborhood within 50 miles," Kunst says in a phone interview. Kunst relies primarily on his network for finding bulbs.

Each year has seen Old House Gardens expand its offerings. While he is pleased at the reception from garden writers, Kunst is equally gratified by the patronage of regular gardeners. "I went into this business because I loved the bulbs," he says. "What I didn't know was how much I would love the people."

As folksy as it sounds, Kunst says he thrives on the sense of community that develops around gardening. He communicates regularly with his customers via an e-mail newsletter. One Kentucky woman in her 80s read that he was looking for a 'Jersey's Beauty' dahlia, and thought a dahlia she'd inherited from her grandmother might be the one. She sent Kunst a bulb to try. It didn't turn out to be a Jersey's Beauty, but Kunst decided the dahlia was worthy, so he christened it 'Fannie Williams' after the customer's grandmother, and offers it in his catalog.

Kunst knows that rescuing every variety of heirloom bulb is impossible. "I saw a list from the 1890s that contained 10,000 named dahlias," he says. "Nobody would say we need to save all of them. But we're talking about saving the best of the past."

"Heirloom" became a buzzword in the 1980s, when heritage tomatoes and old garden roses started to appear in catalogs. These varieties had been popular decades or centuries ago, but some had nearly disappeared because of changes in fashion and commercial greenhouse practices. These historic plants appealed to gardeners not only because of their connection to the past, but also because the plants offered greater adaptability than greenhouse-grown stock.

Kunst became fascinated with history and gardening as a child. As an adult, his fondness for an 1860 scarlet-orange tulip called Prince of Austria turned to concern when catalog after catalog dropped it. When the last American company discontinued it, Kunst worried that his might someday be the only Prince of Austria tulips left. With his wife's blessing, Kunst launched Old House Gardens with a three-page photocopied list of 30 offerings. Today, his heirloom tulips grace historic gardens from Mount Vernon to Colonial Williamsburg to Hearst Castle.

Noted garden author and radio host Ken Druse supports the work Kunst and others are doing to preserve a diverse gene pool. "'New and improved' doesn't always mean 'better,' " he says of modern bulbs. He prefers the sophistication of heirloom tulips, which blend with other perennials, unlike modern ones that tend to hog attention with their height, huge blooms, and flashy colors.

Kunst's challenge now is to grow enough stock to satisfy demand. At times he also has to guard against frustration. "I say to my staff, 'We are really swimming against the tide,' " he says, because so many bulbs slip out of production each year. Hyacinths, which used to be popular in the 1800s, have seen a marked decrease in availability. The Old House Garden catalog calls hyacinths the most endangered garden bulbs, and it offers 18 old-time varieties.

What happened? Kunst says the hyacinth's fall from grace might have as much to do with modern habits and central heating as changes in fashion. In Victorian times, wealthy people spent more time in gardens, strolling through them and experiencing the scent. Today, people are more likely to glimpse their gardens on the way to and from work. The Victorians' drafty houses provided rooms cold enough to grow fragrant hyacinths indoors, where they bloomed in small vases of water. In most well-insulated 20th-century homes, the refrigerator is the only reliably cold spot.

When asked to look ahead, Kunst points to a shift in what gardeners expect. "They are asking more from the garden, that [the season] start earlier and go longer," he says.

Kunst agrees that modern plants have their place. But he can't help relishing the beauty and sturdy growth that heirloom bulbs offer. Just like ethnic foods add variety to a diet, heirloom bulbs bring variety to 21st-century gardens.

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Bulb-growing tips from Scott Kunst
Protect newly planted bulbs

Squirrels and other animals are attracted by the scent of freshly turned soil. If they trouble your bulbs, cover the soil with plastic bird netting (available at most garden centers) and peg it down. It's cheap, easily cut to size, and virtually invisible. Remove after soil freezes or before growth emerges in spring.

Camouflage yellowing foliage

After they bloom, spring bulbs need 6 to 10 weeks to photosynthesize and recharge. Don't cut or braid their foliage, or you'll be sacrificing future blooms. Instead, after planting in the fall, scatter seeds of self-sowing annuals such as forget-me-nots, Johnny jump-ups, larkspur, and Shirley poppies. In spring, their new growth and blooms will make the maturing bulb foliage all but disappear.

Prolong tulip life

Tulips are native to parts of the world where summers are dry, so, for them, a well-watered garden is a swamp. If you don't have sandy, well-drained soil, try planting bulbs in raised beds, places where you never water, on a slope, or near a thirsty shrub or tree and they'll keep coming back.

Indoor bulb forcing

No need for soil or complicated procedures. Refrigerate dry bulbs in a paper bag for 10 weeks, then suspend each one barely above (but not touching) water in a vase, glass, or jar. Set in bright, indirect light at room temperatures and enjoy watching the bulb grow and bloom.

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