This Connecticut gardener shares her best secrets for growing bulbs.
While driving down a rural Redding, Connecticut road, Dennis and Nancy Pelz-Paget spotted a cozy cottage that issued an irresistible siren's call. Although both the 200-year-old home and its surrounding site needed work, the New York couple bought it and set about updating the home and landscape.
That was over 20 years ago, and since then, Nancy has developed a passion—and a talent—for gardening.
"We thought the house was just what a little country house should be," Nancy says. "But, there weren't any gardens-just a few daylilies around the foundation and a couple of apple trees. The area behind the house was like a desert.
"I wasn't a gardener when we bought the house. Now gardening is one of my greatest joys! When we're up here, I don't sit down much. I can spend up to 12 hours at a stretch just working in the gardens."
Nancy's not exaggerating. Since the couple only spends half the week in Connecticut, she makes the most of her time in her lushly growing beds and borders. Long after the sun goes down, this diehard hobbyist is still planting, weeding and moving plants around.
"Dennis gave me a miner's helmet with a light on it because he was getting tired of holding a flashlight while I worked," Nancy says with a laugh.
Nancy, a self-taught green thumb, caught the gardening bug when a friend gave her a carload of lily and aster divisions from her own garden. Nancy took a shovel to the backyard's hardscrabble earth to create holes for her newly acquired bounty.
About 10 years ago, the gardening got a lot easier when the backyard was excavated to make way for an addition to the home. Stone pathways, a water feature and patio were installed, and amended soil was brought in to create planting beds.
Today, those patio-side borders overflow with a lively, colorful array of perennials that bloom from late February into November.
"I started with nothing but have inched my way around the house," Nancy says. "I've become a 'mad' gardener—I never draw a plan. I imagine how it's going to look and invent my gardens as I go along."
Nancy has picked up gardening ideas and techniques from her trial-and-error endeavors, gardening books and visits to notable gardens, both here and abroad, including Monet's famous Giverny gardens, which inspired the yard's overall look.
She has become more selective when choosing plants, seeking out hardy, long-blooming varieties with attractive dark-green, variegated or silvery foliage that maybe, just maybe, will survive onslaughts from foraging deer, voles, squirrels and woodchucks.
She opts for flowering plants with beautiful leaf structures, such as coral bells, lady's mantle and bishop's caps (Epimedium), that endure after blossoms fade. She also discovered that massing plants makes an impressive statement.
"You don't get enough impact with one plant," Nancy says. "I'm after that immediate pleasure of colorful blooms. In early spring, I buy inexpensive quart-size perennials at home centers, and I go to every major garden-club sale. I hit those like crazy because I can find inexpensive and different types of plants. Then I smoosh them together.
"By summer, the plants are large enough to put on quite a show. At the end of the summer, I think about what I need to fill out the beds and purchase half-priced perennials from local nurseries."
As October and November roll around, Nancy is hard at work preparing spring-blooming bulbs for planting.
"I like to plant three different bulbs in a hole, such as a tulip, a hyacinth and an allium," Nancy says. "If I'm lucky, they'll all come up together like a pretty bouquet. When you put all the effort into digging a hole, you might as well put in more than one bulb!"
Nancy achieves her nosegay-like effect by placing the largest of the three bulbs at the bottom of the hole, covering it with a layer of soil, and adding a medium-sized bulb and another layer of soil. She places the smallest bulb on top and fills in the hole.
Nancy says she's especially fond of the peony-like tulips, such as 'Angelique' (above), scarlet 'General Eisenhower' tulips, soft-yellow 'Mrs. John T. Scheepers' tulips and 'The Works,' a deer-proof daffodil collection from White Flower Farm.
Like most avid gardeners, Nancy leaves no open area untouched. With her backyard beds flourishing, she turned her eye toward the front yard and a stretch of land along the roadside.
"I learned that you can move plants like you can move furniture," Nancy recalls, "so I transplanted leftover plants and divisions out to the front beds. I like to jam-pack the flowers in around the house because I want to see something gorgeous blooming from every window when I'm inside."
In the front beds, white and purple tulips repeat the color of the magnolia blooms overhead. Yellow daylilies, purplish-blue nepeta, asters and zinnias line up in front of a cedar-branch fence, a dry-stacked stone wall, an antique apple tree and billowy shrub roses.
Closer to the house, a circular border of nasturtiums supplies a distinctive foliage of cottage charm. Pots of pansies, miniature iris, primroses and tulips spill from beds situated inside old stable doors that double as a gate between the roadway and front path (above).
Out back, a riotous but harmonious array of blooms showcases some of Nancy's favorite plant combinations. Pink and yellow bishop's caps nod below daffodils, and blue salvia front yellow-orange Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). Blankets of blue forget-me-nots anchor yellow and pink tulips.
Nancy also tucks lungwort, campanula, lamb's ear, corydalis, perennial geranium, black-eyed Susan, bleeding heart, aster and autumn joy sedum throughout her borders.
The plants flourish thanks to Nancy's green thumb and techniques she's developed while tending her bountiful beds.
Nancy gives all her plantings a healthy start by loosening the soil in the bottom of each hole with her most essential tool—a garden claw. She places each potted plant, container and all, in a bucket that holds a mix of water and growth-promoter powder. She soaks the plant until there are no more air bubbles, then removes the container and continues the planting process.
"I never plant without amending the soil," Nancy says.
She adds her own mixture of topsoil, dried manure and homemade compost in every planting hole.
She also uses a slow-release fertilizer, like Osmocote, and throws in some Hydrosource water-absorbing pellets to help the soil retain moisture.
Nancy and Dennis, who is in charge of heavy-lifting tasks and wears a cap that proclaims him the "Under Gardener," help the plants survive by spraying their gardens with a variety of repellents. These are meant to deter the sometimes pesky, and always hungry, critters that frequent their wooded area.
The couple enjoys the fruit of their labors morning, noon and night. When the weather permits, they eat all their meals on the patio and take in verdant views that change from week to week and year to year.
"Each year I have a different garden," Nancy says. "Winter may have killed something, or I may find new volunteer plants growing.
"Even after all these years, I still plant things too close together. I just can't get over my need for immediate color gratification. But extra is always better. That's my theory of life!"
Photos by Irene Jeruss