Third-generation bulb grower encourages people to get their hands dirty
“Digging bulbs is hard, hot, dirty work,” Brent Heath says with a laugh.
He was talking about growing up working for his parents' mail-order bulb business. Those bulbs run in the family. His grandfather Charles Heath started growing and selling daffodils in 1900, bringing modern hybrids to the country and even being featured in a 1956 Readers Digest article.
“They dubbed the daffodil as the poor man's rose during the Depression,” Heath says.
The youngest Heath left the business for a while to run a children's summer camp.
“Something must have been in my blood, because in 1972 I came back and bought the business from my mother,” he says. He then started Brent and Becky's Bulbs (brentandbeckysbulbs.com) with his wife in Gloucester, Va. Their son Jay and wife Denise have become the fourth generation to be involved in the bulb business.
“We're truly blessed,” says Heath, 72. “We do something that collectively impacts people's minds and moods. We encourage people to plant a lot of bulbs and harvest a lot of smiles.”
Lilies in the spring
Daffodils will always be his favorite flower, but after that it's lilies, which can be planted in the spring.
“They are amazing,” he says. “The martagons will start blooming in early May. They love being in the shade, and the pollinators love them.”
Martagon lilies have small flowers, grow to around 4 feet tall and make great cut flowers. They are followed in the season by Madonna lilies, then the Asiatic lilies, a variety of hybrids and then the orientals.
“They have incredible fragrance and wonderful drops of nectar that one can rub a finger on and taste sweet like honey,” Heath says. “The bees just adore them.”
Hybrids in late season
Finally blooming later are the hybrids of orientals and trumpets, which should be planted deeply, he adds. ‘Altari' has creamy white flowers with a rose-colored center and produces a strong fragrance that hangs in the humid summer air on warm evenings.
“They can tower to 6 feet and have flowers the size of desert plants,” he says of the hybrids. One of his favorites is ‘Black Beauty.' “I've had it in my garden for years, it gets better every year, just like most of us do,” he says with a chuckle.
Dahlias are the queen of the late season garden, but many people won't grow them as they don't want to save the tender tubers that grow underground.
“They don't have to,” Heath says about saving the tubers. “We'll have plenty more for them again next year,” he says laughing.
Native to Mexico and Central America, they prefer cool nights and shorter days to bloom. “They have incredible cut-and-come-again flowers; the more you pick them, the more they bloom.”
When he saves the tubers he never washes them and keeps the dirt on them to store them over the winter.
Caladiums are beautiful foliage plants that thrive in warm temperatures. “Probably the most shade tolerant and pretty critter resistant,” he says.
They can be dramatic in any shade garden. “Add some caladiums to your hosta garden,” he says, “and to your ferns.”
He has one more suggestion for gardeners who love to grow something different.
“The little rain lily is one of my favorites, zephyranthes,” Heath says. “It's impervious to the deer, rabbit and groundhogs. The neat part is they re-bloom, and it's the ozone from a thunderstorm that triggers them to bloom again. It's incredible.”
Spreading the word
Heath is driven to get everyone interested in spending time in the dirt.
“Gardening is meant to be fun,” he says. “I can help people enjoy their own lives. We need to have more happiness in our world; we need to look for the positive, and gardening is such a great positive.”
Heath has been to every state in the union except North Dakota and Hawaii speaking about growing bulbs and will be in Pittsburgh on April 19 and 20 to appear at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.
The entertaining speaker will present “Bulbs as Companion Plants.” There's a reception at 5:30 p.m., and his lecture begins at 7 p.m. April 19. Cost for the reception and lecture is $50. The lecture only is $25.
When asked why, at 72, he keeps traveling to spread the word, Heath says, “I like people and I like plants, I have a great time.”
The next day at 10 a.m., Heath will hold a workshop at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden on planting bulbs in containers. Participants will fill a pot with layers of spring- and summer-blooming bulbs and then take the container home to enjoy the blooms. The class is $55.
Details: 412-444-4464 or pittsburghbotanicgarden.org
Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a website operated by 535Media, LLC. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or email@example.com. See other stories, videos, blogs, tips and more at everybodygardens.com.