By Pamela A. Keene
Tall spikes of colorful gladiolus grace Southern summer gardens and provide long-lasting cut flowers. Stately canna lilies’ orange, red, pink, yellow and striped blossoms rise above large-leafed foliage year after year. Dahlias, some as large as dinner plates, tempt the curious who find it hard to believe they’re real.
“So many spring-planted bulbs add color and interest to summer gardens here in Georgia,” says Elaine Kelley, owner of The Potting Shed Nursery in Flowery Branch on Spout Springs Road. “And the good thing about bulbs is that many of them come back year after year without much work.”
After the daffodils, which are planted in the fall, finish blooming in February, March and even into April, gardeners have a full palette of choices for summer color that bulbs can provide.
“From Oriental and Asiatic lilies and flashy bearded iris to shade-loving caladiums, you really can enjoy many kinds of bulbs,” Kelley says.” The key is to chose wisely and plant your selections in the right conditions. For instance, if a bulb requires full sun, don’t try to force it into a shady spot. You’ll only be disappointed.”
Bunches of gladiolus are plentiful in grocery stores once summer arrives, but why not grow your own? The bulbs, in gardeners’ terms they’re called corms, are affordable and can be purchased at area nurseries or in bulk from box retailers. “You can also order them online and may even find a wider selection of colors,” Elaine says. “The hardest thing about gladiolus is that they tend to fall over because the plants are so tall, and the bloom spikes are heavy. I’ve found that planting them in groups and using peony rings with grids can really help keep them upright.”
Plant gladiolus corms in full sun at the back of a cutting garden, then fill in with smaller or shorter flowers in front. Follow package instructions for spacing and depth. She suggests planting groups of them at two-week intervals starting in mid-April to extend the bloom season.
Kelley specializes in bearded irises and holds an annual Iris Festival each May at The Potting Shed. “Irises are such beautiful and interesting flowers,” she says. “In full sun, they’ll bloom from the end of April through early to mid-May.”
Visitors to The Potting Shed in the spring are greeted by clusters of tall stately irises naturalized in flower beds with daylilies and perennials. A large iris field at the rear of the property showcases dozens of varieties to select from.
“The best time to plant irises is in mid-July to August,” she says. “They’ll bloom for you the next year.” Plant them in well-drained soil in full sun, being careful to position the rhizomes high in the planting hole and just below the surface.
“Irises are easy to grow, but to maximize blooms, they should be divided every three to four years.” They require little water, except in extreme drought conditions.
Dramatic dahlias have blooms that range from compact ball-types to dinner-plate sized blossoms with spiky petals. Some are daisy-like; others look like forms of chrysanthemums. They are available in a range of colors from pure white to red, pink, purple, burgundy, orange, yellow and splotched/variegated blooms. With more than 20,000 varieties around the world, dahlias bring a bright spot to the garden with flair. Sometimes confused with zinnias, which are annuals, dahlias are grown from tubers and bloom from July to October.
The best planting time is early spring. Select the site based on the growth habit of the variety. Some are only 12 inches tall; others can be as tall as six feet. Taller varieties will need to be staked. Plant in full sun to part shade protected from the afternoon heat.
“Mulch them well in the winter to protect the tubers from cold,” Kelley says. “Dahlias are tender bulbs, and some gardeners actually dig and overwinter them each year.”
Asiatic or oriental lilies can bring star-power and fragrance to the garden. “Purchase and plant the bulbs in the spring for same-year blooms,” she says. “The fragrance is distinctive, and they make excellent cut flowers.”
True lilies can be planted in containers or directly in the garden. A word of caution: these lilies are not deer-resistant, so you may need to place them closer to your house or on your patio to discourage deer from foraging. They will regrow and rebloom year after year.
“Caladiums are one of the few summer bulbs that do well in shade,” Kelley says. “Known for their colorful foliage, they’re typically treated as annuals in our area, or you can dig them when the foliage dies back and store them indoors, then replant them as the spring weather warms.”
Canna lilies are grown from tubers and like full sun and moist soil. The tall plants have large leaves — either green or stripped variegated — and are topped with clusters of orange, red, yellow or pink blossoms that in some ways resemble the blooms of gladiolus. “The foliage and the flowers provide great garden interest,” Kelley says. “However, cannas can be invasive, so be careful to purchase newer hybrids that are not as aggressive.”
For more information about bulbs and their garden cousins, tubers, corms and rhizomes, contact The Potting Shed Nursery at http://www.pottingshednursery.com or call 770-067-9049.