About 10 years ago I received a phone call from a local gardener who was distraught over a perplexing problem in the garden. It looks like something was eating his hostas, hydrangeas, tomato plants, and even his many-thorny roses.
I suggested that it sounded like he was experiencing midnight raids by members of the cloven-helmeted gang, easily identifiable by their black leather jackets and conspicuous antlers protruding from the tops of their pompadours.
But at that suggestion, she replied, “Oh no…that’s not all.”. I live in the city.” It turns out that by “city” he meant the Indian Hills neighborhood of Louisville, home to the largest herd of hosta-fed deer since the invention of the Zoot Suit.
Living in the Louisville Highlands neighborhood for the past 25 years, I always thought fighting deer in the yard was someone else’s problem. But that was until last year when a 240-pound doe, and now her three fawns, took up residence in the neighborhood. My yard is now shifting focus to everything deer proof, all the time. And now that we’re into bulb planting season, that means I need to completely change my bulb planning.
In the world of spring-blooming bulbs, it’s no secret that in most people’s minds, tulips are king. And that’s completely understandable given the gigantic flowers, the dazzling colors and, frankly, the mystique that surrounded 17th-century Europeans who offered the price of a modest home for a single light bulb. Of course, the problem with tulips in the garden is that if you have a single deer within 5 billion miles of a tulip in bloom, or about to bloom, that deer will hop on a freight train, take a ride and ford the river. Kwai to eat that tulip flower exactly 12 hours before it opens!
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In short, if you have deer, you don’t have tulips.
Enter the daffodils.
If you know someone who wants to start gardening, daffodils are as foolproof a starter plant as you can get. In fact, they’re so forgiving that if someone plants a bunch of daffodils and none of them sprout the following spring, they probably shouldn’t be trusted with a trowel anymore. Daffodils are tough, they can take all kinds of horticultural insults and they just keep going.
The other good thing about daffodils is that deer and moles, voles and lions, tigers and bears usually leave them completely alone.
members of the genus DaffodilDaffodils come in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and flower forms, divisions in taxonomic language. The smallest top is less than 6 inches tall and the tallest is almost 30 inches. Of course, the genus specializes in yellow, but there are pinks, greens, oranges, and multicolors. There are early flowers and late flowers. They do well in full sun or in the light shade of deciduous trees. At Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, we even plant them in containers for mobile spring garden treats. The American Daffodil Society is a great place to start.
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But in the deer-proof garden, your bulb display can go far beyond daffodils.
The following is a list of some of our favorites.
summer snowflake (Leucojum summer)
In my opinion, this is one of the most underused bulbs in the garden. It doesn’t produce a huge splash of color, but it’s indestructible, grows in sun or shade, and lasts forever. Growing 18 to 20 inches tall, it is crowned in late spring with delicate white parachute-like flowers that last for weeks and weeks. It is a great companion for typical shade plantings of hostas, ferns, hellebore and epimedius. Excellent in cut flower arrangements.
English and Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-script, H. hispanica)
Slightly shorter than the summer snowflake, bluebells reach a height of about 15 inches with strap-like clusters of grey/green leaves. The small flowers are produced in late spring on upright spikes in a wide range of shades, from deep blue to lavender, pink, and even white. They work in the sun or in the shade.
saffron (Saffron species and hybrids)
Crocus is always on the no-brainer list. They are inexpensive to buy and come in a variety of colors, from white to yellow, orange, pink, and purple. They grow in sun and shade and can naturalize, spreading by seed over the years, as long as you don’t use pre-emergent herbicides. About the only pest problem is the occasional hardworking squirrel that may “transplant” a few bulbs into a neighbor’s garden.
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Snowdrops (galanthus nivalis)
I never understand why snowdrops aren’t in every garden. They are among the first signs of life in the bulb garden, sometimes blooming as early as February. Its delicate white flowers last for weeks and weeks during the time of year when we most need an emotional boost in the garden. They’re cheap to buy, but if you feel the need to go beyond horticulture, there are hundreds of cultivars that can set you back the cost of a fancy dinner for a single bulb!
Siberian scylla (Scilla siberica)
If blue is your color, you’re in luck. The Siberian scilla fills a niche similar to snowdrops, but a bit later in the spring season, but blooms in a stunning and stunning cerulean blue! Squill will naturalize over time in garden beds or even lawns. Buy them for a hundred and distribute them everywhere.
Alliums (Garlic species)
Also known as onions, there are dozens of species and groups of hybrids for almost any garden situation. Some grow up to 4 feet tall with massive amethyst-colored flowers, while others can reach no more than 6 inches tall with yellow blooms. Most bloom in late spring and early to mid summer. Some can be a bit expensive. All of them are amazing!
Paul Cappiello is the executive director of Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.