Give gladioli another chance

'There's no law' that says you have to dig up seasonal bulbs, a nursery owner says.
CHICAGO -- Years ago, Scott Kunst's grandmother used to lift the bulbs of many summer flowers and save them over the winter. It's the prospect of that tiring yearly chore, he thinks, that has prevented many gardeners from fully embracing such enchanting plants as cannas, dahlias and elephant ears.
But "there's no law" that says you have to dig up the bulbs, says Kunst, owner of Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs in Ann Arbor, Mich. And he has seen interest grow as more customers have started thinking of these plants as annuals, like the impatiens and fuchsias that are freely enjoyed for a season and then composted.
Not that there aren't benefits to lifting them. Many summer bulbs, such as cannas, will reproduce in the ground, so that when you dig them up in the fall, you'll get more for next season, says Lizzie Holmberg, manager of Lizzie's Garden in Naperville, Ill. You save the expense of buying new bulbs each season. And some gardeners, once they get started in dahlias or tuberous begonias, will discover a favorite variety that they want to keep from year to year.
Good timing
Now, with catalogs arriving, is a good time to start thinking about including some of these beauties in the garden. Since most are tropical or Mediterranean in origin, they can't be set out in the garden until the soil has warmed to 60 degrees, says Sally Ferguson, spokeswoman for the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. That would be about June 1, Kunst figures. But you can plan to start them up to eight weeks ahead in pots indoors. And many of these plants do very well spending the whole summer in containers.
All these bulbs -- some are technically tubers -- need well-drained soil. Some can be bought already started in pots at garden centers later in the spring.
Good ideas
Here are some summer-blooming bulbs, common and uncommon, to consider.
UCannas: Once derided as old-fashioned, cannas, with their often striped leaves and spikes of tropical-style bloom that add height to beds or containers, are red-hot in gardening circles now. Maybe too hot. Kunst thinks some gardeners are turned off by "that hard edge that comes with a blazing red or blazing yellow flower." He points out the many more subtle cannas, such as the delicate pink 'Madame Paul Caseneuve,' that bloom in much softer shades. Cannas do best in full sun, though they can tolerate a bit of filtered light.
UTuberous begonias: Not the bedding plants bought in flats, these lovelies, grown from tubers, have luxurious rosettes of bloom that brighten shade in beds or pots. "The colors are incredibly lush and velvety," says Ferguson.
UDahlias: With blooms that range from simply daisy-like to cushiony pompons, in sizes from 1 inch to 6 or 10 inches, on plants from 1 to 7 feet tall and colors from white to fire-engine red, the wide-ranging dahlias are the secret weapons of the fall garden. They start blooming when the weather begins to cool off and continue blooming until frost. Dahlias need full sun.
UElephant ears: Another plant that has enjoyed a revival in recent years, these huge-leaved taro plants, often 5 feet tall and just as wide, can make a garden look "like another country," says Holmberg. 'Black Magic,' a moderate-size cultivar with dark, velvety leaves, is popular, but Kunst likes Colocasia esculenta 'Fontanesii', with green leaves held on bright violet stems. Elephant ears need light shade, shelter from the wind and lots of moisture, so Kunst often grows them in containers that sit in saucers full of water.
UGladioli: Some people still associate tall, stately gladiolus with the stiff funeral arrangements in which they are common, Holmberg says. But Kunst thinks the tide has turned, especially for smaller-flowering varieties such as 'Atom.' They seem to be more disease-resistant, he says. Ferguson likes to spot gladioli in clumps of five to nine among perennials, such as Flower Carpet Pink shrub roses, 'Autumn Joy' sedum and perennial mums, which she says will hold them so they don't need staking.
UGladiolus callianthus: Recently reclassified as a member of the gladiolus family, it looks very unlike its cousins, with sharp, bright white petals around deep purple centers, held on slender stems that sway in the wind.
UTuberoses: Domesticated by the Aztecs, these beauties have 3-foot stalks with late-summer clusters of intensely fragrant tubular white flowers. Best grown in sun in pots; put them by the patio to enjoy the scent, Kunst suggests.
UGloriosa vines: Ferguson loves these because "they look like alien intruders from another world," with far-reaching tendrils and "flowers like orange and yellow butterflies." Grow in sun on a support such as a trellis.
UCaladiums: Grown for their heart-shaped leaves that range from green to silver, often touched with pink, caladiums brighten shady spots.
ULilies: Don't forget: The hardy lilies -- early summer Asiastics, midsummer LA hybrids, late-summer Orientals and later Orienpets -- can be planted in spring as well as fall. Don't lift their bulbs; they are hardy here and will thrive through Chicago winters for years.
XSources: Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs at or call (734) 995-1486. Call Lizzie's Garden at (630) 904-1066. The Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center at
For a list of bulb catalog houses, see the Web site of the Mailorder Gardening Association,