By Jane Milliman
What is a bulb, exactly? It’s a specialized root that provides food storage to the plant. Bulbs tend to be ephemeral, which means they go dormant during certain seasons. Those characteristics make bulbs easy to store, and move from place to place.
Many types of adapted roots act as bulbs—including corms, tubers, and rhizomes— but for our purposes I lump them all together as bulbs. In essence they are tender plants you can dig up and save from year to year.
Many tender bulbs are popular for their large, extremely showy foliage. Caladium offerings seem to get bigger with each generation hitting the market, and new breeding advancements in canna lilies have produced spectacular leaf patterns.
Cannas are very useful in that you can grow them in a pond or deep fountain. They also perform perfectly well in large containers and in the ground, but require quite a bit of watering.
For fascinating leaf patterns plus show-stopping blossoms, look to tuberous begonias. These easy, shade-tolerant beauties come in so many forms, it’s hard to believe some of them are related.
Dahlias and gladiolas are traditional favorites, stalwarts of the scene, and make excellent cut flowers. Collectors particularly prize dahlias, and you can shell out quite a bit for rare ones. Fortunately, you can find plenty of beautiful varieties at Lowe’s that won’t break the bank.
Most people buy sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) annually to fill containers and flowerbeds. (It’s a great spiller and filler.) As other summer bulbs, you can lift it in fall and stash it in a cool, dry spot over the winter. Then, simply plant it in the garden after the likelihood of frost has passed.
Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria) is a grocery store cut-flower staple. It has never been considered hardy in the Northeast, but breeding advancements have brought about a few cultivars that survive winter.
Crocosmia, too, is marginally hardy here, as is pineapple lily (Eucomis). If you choose to risk letting marginally hardy bulbs stay in the ground over winter, make sure you plant them in a protected area, and mulch thoroughly in the fall.