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TAKE A CHANCE ON BULBS

Q. I recently bought some bulbs, and when I opened the bag, I found that they were moldy. Will they still grow?

-- Lisa Vander Geeten, Wauwatosa, Wis.

A. Though you should definitely avoid buying bulbs that show signs of mold, bulbs that are a little bit moldy might bloom if they are still firm and haven't begun to rot. If you choose to take a chance on them, try using an informal planting scheme to minimize any disappointment next spring.

Except in my cutting garden, I often prefer to plant bulbs in naturalistic, seemingly random patterns rather than in straight rows. This way, if some bulbs fail, I don't end up with unsightly gaps. Here's a trick: Toss a few handfuls of bulbs onto a lawn or planting bed, and dig holes where they fall (providing all the bulbs are at least their own width apart).

Plant bulbs in rich, well-drained soil enriched with well-rotted compost and a fertilizer made especially for bulbs (available at garden centers). Tulip bulbs should be planted at a depth at least three times their height -- and preferably four times their height. I suggest using a step-on bulb planter if you're planting a large quantity of bulbs, because it makes the digging much easier. Aerate the soil at the bottom of each hole with a hand cultivator to help the bulbs grow strong, healthy roots.

The next time you buy bulbs, look for large, firm, heavy ones that are free of rotten spots. Don't worry if the papery, onionlike skin on the outside is torn, but it should be present.

Plant spring-blooming bulbs in early to mid-fall, once the weather cools down, as soon after purchasing them as possible. (Check with a local garden center about best planting times in your area.) If you can't plant the bulbs right away, store them in a cool, dry place in a ventilated container such as a crate filled with wood shavings or a mesh bag hung from a peg.

In the south and southwest United States, winters may be too mild to provide bulbs with the period of cold they need to prompt blooms in the spring. Either look for prechilled bulbs in nurseries and catalogs, or store the bulbs in the bottom of your refrigerator for six to eight weeks before planting them at about year's end.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent to Stewart by electronic mail: mstewart@marthastewart.com. Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.

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