Every fall since he could walk, my son and I have planted bulbs together. We go to Flowerland, our favorite nursery here in Albany, California, one that sells bulbs by the bin and coffee and cookies from an Airstream trailer out back. We get garlic and seed potatoes, tulips and hyacinths, and we head home to our garden.
It’s a bit like an Easter egg hunt in reverse. We wander around the front and back yards, hiding what we know we’ll see again in spring. I remember how, at 18 months, Bennett could barely hold a trowel, much less carve up the earth; how, at 2, he delighted in hollering, “Worm, worm!” into the holes he’d dug.
October in Northern California is still mild. The ginkgoes are blazing golden up and down the block, and if we’re lucky, the rains will have come to break up the dusty blaze of summer. As we dig, I think about the season we’re closing down, our accomplishments. This year, Bennett turned 5. I had a baby, published a second book of poems. And I think of the spring ahead, how distant it seems. I know that the tulips will come up and greet us then, and that I’ll remember the self I was when I planted them.
That’s one of the best things about autumn bulbs. Tulips are a time capsule, a gift to the months ahead. Like the garlic scapes I’ll snap in the spring, like potatoes that slowly sprout in the mild California winter, they affirm the future. I don’t always know what exactly will be happening when spring comes, but I do know I’ll be grateful that I had the fore-thought to plan for these gorgeous spring flowers and made the effort to get them in the ground.
Related: 3 Essential Tips For Growing Tulips
Next spring, however, will be different. I won’t be here to see the flowers I’m planting come up. I’m going to Ireland later this fall for a six-month sabbatical with my family. The plants we are leaving will need to be tended to by renters I haven’t yet chosen. I can’t know yet if these people will care about gardening, so I’m more than a little afraid that my well-laid vegetable beds will fall to rack and ruin. Meanwhile, I’m busy getting ready to move a hemisphere away: thinning shelves, putting personal objects in storage. I’m making our house less of a home.
You would think I’d let the flower- bulb planting slide. Nevertheless, there’s something in the light, in the autumn air: Old rituals die hard. I recently found myself at Flowerland again with Bennett in tow. We passed by the garlic and potatoes, but I couldn’t keep myself from stopping in front of the tulips—bulked like dark nuts in bins pinned with gorgeous pictures of huge pink blooms, flaming stripes, dark dwarves. We savored their names: ‘Aladdin’s Giant’, ‘Black Parrot’, ‘Apricot Jewel’. How could we resist? Before I knew it, our hands were filling a sack.
And so, last week, on a mild day between rains, my son and I were fertilizing a grassline patch along the fence in the back yard. We noticed a huge spiderweb in the euphorbia, a ladybug on a leaf, some renegade lovage. We chatted and dug, and the sun was on our backs. I realized, as I was planting with Bennett, that I was not planting for the past or for the future, but just for the pleasure of being in the delightful present with him.
“Mom,” Bennett said, as we were planting. “Mom, it’s pretty good to be alive, right?” Right, kid, I thought. Right you are.
Keriann and Jeroen Koeman of Virginia’s EcoTulips offer a how-to:
1. Plant in October after first frost but before frost has penetrated the soil.
2. Get varieties with “perennial traits” for blooms over several seasons from one bulb.
3. Buy organic. The flowers are brighter, stronger, and more fragrant.
4. Plant in layers. For a long season, bury late bloomers deepest, then mid-bloomers, and earliest on top, with soil in between.
5. Get deeper. Dig 6 to 8 inches down so bulbs don’t become squirrel food.
6. Mulch lightly. Heavy mulch stops soil from freezing and throws off bulbs’ timing.
7. Foil voles and squirrels. Form a bowl of chicken wire under bulbs and lay wire over them, just under the soil’s surface.
8. Stop watering when leaves begin to die. But don’t cut leaves until brown. Bulbs are nourished by aging foliage.
9. Dig up bulbs in rainy zones. Store in a dry place and replant in fall.