An old house just cries out for old-timey flowers: brilliant upright hyacinths, peonies heavy with blossoms, buttery Wordsworthian daffodils. A great source for the heirloom bulbs that produce such nostalgic pretties is Old House Gardens (oldhousegardens.com), which bills its wares as "unique, endangered, and amazing."
For an introduction to antique bulbs, it has a dandy offer of $35 worth of bulbs that can be planted in fall and will work well in your zone.
Frugal Fall-Planted Sampler
Scott Kunst -- who learned to garden at his grandma's knee in Michigan and has a picture of himself at seven with buck teeth and a buzz cut proudly brandishing a pair of radishes -- runs the business out of a big barnlike garage in back of his home. After going forth to seek his fortune and knocking about in NYC, he returned to Michigan to teach school, bought a little old house, and was intrigued to see plants he'd never seen before growing in the yard. "I started collecting historic plants," he recalls. "A lot were still in catalogs, but some were dropping out, including one of my favorite tulips, Prince of Austria. When the last catalog dropped it, I though omigod, I've got the last giant panda. I should do something."
Prince of Austria Tulip
"I was teaching middle school English at the time and I said to my wife, Honey, I'll put together a little catalog and see what happens. We started out with three sheets folded over in the middle copied at Kinko's, and people sent money back in the mail. That was 18 years ago." If you're picturing a rambling, cottagey garden, you'll learn, as Mark Twain once said, that "Nothing is romantic when you know more about it." The reality is that, although Scott gets most of his bulbs from small farmers in 17 states and overseas, he grows many of his rarest beauties wherever he can -- on vacant lots and friends' backyards in the central part of Ann Arbor. (Though I suppose there might be a sort of wounded poetry about an endangered daffodil peeping up from a vacant lot.)
Even though his clients are far-flung, Scott says, "We really develop a relationship with them. It's like having a corner butcher shop or grocery store. You're part of a community." Their biggest fall seller is the Gladiolus Byzantine, a wild perennial glad often found in cottage gardens.
My fave in the catalog is the rare King of the Blues hyacinth. Not only do I love the deep purple, but I also admire its ramrod straight posture and slim build, different than the schlubby hyacinths you often see today. (Do you think there might be something in the water causing an obesity epidemic in modern plants as well as modern people?)
King of the Blues Hyacinth
The website has a nifty bulb search feature, sort of like online dating, only horticultural and thus safer: You'd never have to take out an injunction order against a dahlia, it would just politely fade away. You can specify what you're looking for: height, color, habits (sun and shade, that is), soil type, new to the site, fragrance, and so on. For example, I searched for plants popular from 1900-1940 with blue or purple blooms that would grow well in average Zone 4 soil, and came up with 13 eye-popping choices among dahlias, crocuses, tulips, and irises. To start your own search, click the "Go" button next to any empty search box at oldhousegardens.com.
All photographs provided by Scott Kunst.