Gardener’s Notebook

Dim Bulbs

Gardeners just aren’t diggin’ bulbs anymore — a trend that’s poised to change

By Ross Howell Jr.

My mother, Rachel, would be disappointed to learn that flower bulbs — essential elements of her garden — have fallen into a slump. She’d be even more disappointed to learn her son’s lassitude has contributed to their demise.

My mother was the best gardener I ever met. While I work at being the gardener I’m sure she hoped I’d become, I haven’t been that successful, certainly not by her example.

As a boy, I found tumblebugs, duck chicks and lambs to be far more interesting than daffodils or dahlias. Still, I took note of my mother’s flowers.

Her dahlias were as big as my head, drooping from sturdy, staked stalks. Her gladiola arrangements graced the summer altar of our church, Sunday after Sunday. And her paperwhites lifted their delicate faces every spring, often from a bed covered with snow.

A recent winter morning, I phoned my neighbor in Greensboro, Jane Gallimore.

“Didn’t I give you some daffodil bulbs?” I asked. “Mine are already up five inches.”

Jane politely indicated I hadn’t. I solved the mystery later that day.

I found the bulbs in a neatly folded paper bag. It rested atop a corrugated box of dahlia tubers I’d forgotten to put out a year ago.

My shriveled dahlias and bagged but ungiven daffodils are a sad metaphor for the state of flower bulbs today.

“In a culture obsessed with instant gratification, people have a hard time getting excited about bulbs,” notes Anne Marie Chaker in a 2012 Wall Street Journal article.

“A new generation of gardeners, including urban homesteaders and sustainable living enthusiasts, are into artisanal food and heirloom vegetables, but not really flowers and other ornamental plants,” Chaker says.

She offers some sad facts. In the years following the Great Recession, households with vegetable gardens have increased by some 20 percent, while flower gardening has declined by more than 10 percent. Many flower growers and retailers have left the business altogether.

According to a 2009 poll by the research firm Knowledge Networks, the average annual spending for flower bulbs among gardeners 25 to 30 years old was 36 percent below the average annual spending by gardeners aged 45 to 63.

Much as I’d like to blame flower bulbs’ woes on millennials, that wouldn’t be fair. After all, there’s a lot to admire in the idea of dedicating time in the garden to growing fresh, healthy food for young families.

The bulb industry acknowledges that most of its customers are women between the ages of 45 and 63.

Given time and gravity — my joints aren’t as fluid as they once were, God knows — the primary bulb market will simply age out.

But bulbs are looking to make a comeback.

Some retailers have expanded their offerings, with tulips and daffodils in far more exotic shapes and colors than the traditional red and yellow. Some offer big collections of bulbs in sophisticated color palettes. Others offer smaller, boutiquey packages wrapped in attractive burlap as gifts.

And in 2012 the Dig Drop Done Foundation, comprising bulb growers, exporters and distributors based in the Netherlands, kicked off a three-year, $5.7 million marketing campaign to introduce new consumer groups to flowering bulbs, according to Chaker.

Emphasizing the simplicity of planting bulbs with a trademarked “Dig.Drop.Done” campaign, the foundation still targets the female market, but with special emphasis on young urbanites and busy mothers with little free time.

My mom never said much about my failings as a gardener, and my neighbor Jane — kind as she is — would also demur.

So I’ll just say it.

Hopefully the D.D.D. foundation’s bright young consumers will be better at remembering to give or plant their bulbs than I am.  h

Ross Howell Jr. hasn’t really made progress in improving his memory. He scrupulously records all meetings, events and tasks on his laptop calendar — and then forgets to consult it.

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