The spring bulbs on my patio are up early this year, apparently fooled by the unseasonably warm weather. Fat, pointed Darwin tulip buds are already nodding above their sturdy, blue-green whorls of foliage. Flat, branched freesia leaves have also emerged, promising fragrant flowers to come. Best of all, the muscari have poked their delicate heads out of their pots, after having declined to put in an appearance last year.
Other than that, the big news is my retirement, which took place the first of February. I’ve worked at least a half dozen years longer than most people. But then, I loved my job. Never mind the fact that I had precious little time to spend with friends and family, frequently didn’t sleep well due to stress, and recently developed high blood pressure.
I was good though, until my friend Richard died a year ago last January. He was born just two weeks after me. We didn’t always get along that well—he was Sicilian and very opinionated, but I loved the guy any way. He suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage while walking his dog. You always think you have all the time in the world, but it seems that no, you don’t. The wake-up call clanging in my head, I told my employers I would be leaving. I gave them twelve month’s notice, which is not like me. Not much of a planner, I can’t envision things more than a few weeks ahead.
Which brings me back to the topic I had in mind when I sat down to write. Gardening is one of the things I never had time for. For years, when tulips and daffodils appeared in the grocery stores, I mourned my lack of foresight. If I had only thought to purchase bulbs in the fall, I would have spring flowers putting on a gorgeous display right on my own patio.
Several years ago, while shopping at Target, a bargain bag of daffodil bulbs seduced me. Just before Thanksgiving, I poked them into pots of soil, adding a few tulip bulbs just for the heck of it. Sure enough, after the winter rains ceased and the days began lengthening, a spectacular display of golden daffodils blazed forth, followed by tall, blood red tulips with white throats and handsome black stamens. I was hooked.
Ah, tulips. Each year now I lust after more and more tulips. They say that when tulips were first introduced in Europe, members of the aristocracy impoverished themselves trying to acquire the rarest, most beautiful varieties. I understand. Last year I spent $100 just on tulips. I fear I’ve become a bulb slut.
So, now the muscari. Their little bulbs are no bigger than the end of your finger. Two years ago, I added them to my bulb purchases because I liked the name, and I thought their diminutive size, slender foliage and pale lavender color would go well with the more showy tulips and daffodils. Their performance that year was modest at first. Buds emerged all right, and a few bluish purple blooms opened. They looked nothing like the lavish spikes of flowers depicted on the package. But as the daffodils faded and the tulips began unfolding, the muscari’s flower heads slowly lengthened and more blooms opened. Within a few weeks, my muscari boasted four-inch clusters of exquisite flowers the color of the summer sky. I moved the pots to my back step, and every morning the muscari greeted me when I stuck my head out the door.
The following Fall, browsing the bulb bins in the garden store, I confidently purchased muscari again, along with tulips, daffodils, crocus and freesia. I put the muscari in the same pots as before, happily anticipating weeks of being greeted by their lovely flowers. Alas, as the other bulbs came up and bloomed, the pots of muscari remained barren. Not a single sprout. What had I done wrong? I re-read the sparse instructions that came with the bulbs and consulted my Ortho “All About Bulbs” book. “Muscari, (grape hyacinth), members of the lily family originating in the Mediterranean area,” it said. But there was no clue to the mystery of why my second batch of muscari bulbs failed.
Last September, now well-adapted to the life cycle of spring bulbs, I sat down to pour over gardening catalogs, contemplating my bulb selections for the coming season. Idly glancing through the how-to brochures I’d collected, my eyes fell on a paragraph on that began, “Chilling is required for tulips, hyacinths, crocus and freesia . . . ” Eureka! Muscari are baby hyacinths. I already knew that in moderate climates like ours, tulips need to be chilled for six to eight weeks before planting, and each year I’ve dutifully done so. But hyacinths? Who knew?
I bought more muscari and filled one whole vegetable bin in my refrigerator with bags of tulip, muscari, freesia and crocus bulbs.
When the muscari came up this spring, it felt like a tiny miracle. I knelt down and ran my thumb and forefinger gently up their stalks and murmured a few words of appreciation. The mystery of the muscari had been solved.
Likewise, the mystery of retirement. The crushing boredom and desperate conversations with grocery clerks I had envisioned have not come to pass. I just ask that please, do not call me, e-mail me or drop by without an appointment. What with my gardening and all, I have very little free time.
Postscript: Earlier this month, while cleaning out a flower pot retrieved from under the porch, I discovered some miniature bulbs buried in the soil. Each bulb had a tiny green shoot. They were my 2010 muscari, which had slept peacefully for a whole year, just waiting for a cold winter. I moved them into the sun, and I have high hopes for them.