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Bulb time: Plant now, enjoy later

If there were ever an autumn that begs us to plant bulbs, this is it. We’ve had lots of time. I’m imagining the garden center shelves are emptied. You all have new beds that will bursting with daffodils and crocuses next spring – right?

But maybe not: I also know that new homeowners and gardeners start from scratch every year without much gardening knowledge, time, or money. Some may not know that spring-flowering bulbs, planted in fall, are the easiest flowering plants to grow.

Bulb basics

The most familiar flowers of early to mid-spring are tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses, at least in our area. I’ll encourage you to try others as well. If you plant them in fall, they will flower in spring. They are hardy, so if you do things right most will live for many years and rebloom for years.

• Site selection and prep: Hardy bulbs need full sun or at least partial sun (four to six hours daily). Since deciduous trees don’t develop all their leaves until late spring, many bulbs will get enough sunshine for a good start under their canopies.

When placing bulbs, remember that after they flower the plants must continue to grow for many weeks (their preparation for next year) and they can look quite raggedy. So plant them behind annuals or perennials that will rise up in front of them, or prepare a bed that’s just for bulbs.

For successful growing, bulbs need several inches of loosened soil. You should plan to mix in compost, especially in depleted or compacted soil.

• Planting: The right depth is everything. Bulb packages always tell you proper depth for each species, but here’s the basic rule of thumb: Measure the bulb’s height from bottom to tip and multiply by 3.5 to figure out the depth. (1-inch tall bulb needs to be planted under 3.5 inches of soil.) In severely cold areas, plant bulbs slightly deeper than packages indicate.

Spacing also shows on bulb packages – recommended to allow them to spread in the future. Formal beds call for symmetrical arrangements but for most informal gardens the bulbs look nicest in drifts or casual groupings as if they occurred naturally.

Bulbs need prepared garden soil with lots of compost mixed in. Plant them at the right depth pointy side up. (Fritillarias with a flat side might best be laid sideways.) Some folks use bulb planters or augers, but in less-than-ideal soil you’ll need a fork and spade.

While a new bulb contains all its nutrients ready to use, many gardeners add some bulb-booster fertilizer in the hole. (After they bloom next spring it’s helpful to fertilize them for future performance.)

Five ways to plant bulbs:

1. In a new area dig individual holes, properly spaced.

2. Dig holes behind and around perennials and shrubs in an established bed, with at least three to seven bulbs spaced apart in each hole. Large groups look best.

3. Dig a trench deeper than the bulbs require, and spread some compost. Then place the bulbs in casual looking drifts. Use several bulbs of one species, then a drift of a different type.

4. If your soil is too hard, use this easy method: Rough up the soil surface, add an inch of compost, and scatter the bulbs on top of the soil. Then dump good garden soil or a compost-topsoil mix on top of the bulb. Since this soil will settle a lot, make it deeper than the recommended depth.

5. Plant in tubs or large containers. Keep bulbs far enough away from the containers’ sides so the bulbs don’t freeze. Or bubble-wrap the containers, or sink them into the ground, or put them in a cold garage.

After you have planted bulbs, watch for autumn rainfall to help them start to grow roots. When rain doesn’t come, water the bed until the ground freezes. Especially in a raised bed, prevent soil run-off by adding an inch or two of chopped leaves or another kind of mulch.

How late is too late to plant? The sooner you plant bulbs, the sooner they grow some roots to get started before spring.

But even if you plant late, most bulbs will produce flowers next spring. What doesn’t work: Keeping them un-planted is usually disappointing (with the exception of bulbs you are refrigerating to force for winter flowers indoors – more on that another time).

Which bulbs?

Among the most familiar bulbs, daffodils rule because rabbits and deer don’t eat them and they naturalize (spread) very easily. Hyacinths, Fritillaria, alliums and Camassias are deer-proof. Species tulips (the short ones) resist critter feeding.

Generally tulip lovers must plan to cage the bulbs, use repellents diligently, or cover the beds with chicken wire. Some find success using manure or milorganite. Or try tulips in tubs and containers.

Catalogs show you bulbs that you might not see in your garden center. For area businesses, the problem is that bulbs have a very limited time period for selling.

If the weather is awful nobody comes in and the bulbs spoil on the shelves in the heated buildings. And the slowest to sell are the less-known ones. So ask the owners for the bulbs you want and then buy them! Or check out the great catalogs such as Colorblends Bulbs or Brent and Becky’s Bulbs.

Beyond the old favorites, try these:

Camassia: midsized plant, blue-flowers, both beautiful and deer-proof.

Chionodoxa (Glory-of-the-snow): 4- to 6-inches tall, blue or white; plant a large swatch.

Fritillaria: Don’t let the cost per bulb scare you; the big, showy flowers are worth it, and the smelly bulb repels animals. Plant deeply.

Hyacinthoides (Scilla, English or Spanish bluebells): Pink or white; plant in a large swath and let them spread.

Puschkinia (Lebanese squill): Pale blue, often striped flowers; just adorable.

There are many more bulb species and also varieties or cultivars of familiar ones. See a catalog and be amazed! Bulb gardening can be a lifetime adventure. If you’re a beginner, just try some, starting with daffodils – a quick way to grow some gardening confidence.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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