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Sally Cunningham: Plant some bulbs. You'll be glad you did.

One of the best thrills for a gardener is seeing the green shoots of bulbs pop up in spring. It always feels miraculous (actually they are) and yet it’s such an easy miracle to make happen.

You just have to plant them now.

Hint: Do you know any new homeowners or beginning gardeners? Give them a bag of bulbs, with instructions. Not only will they be appreciating you next spring, you may have also created a gardener!

Which bulbs and where to get them?

This is the tough question. I always urge buying from local professional garden centers and nurseries. That’s because they put a lot of effort into perusing catalogs and attending shows to figure out the best to order for you. Also you can see and feel the bulbs – they should be firm and hard – and you know that they were probably shipped and stored carefully.

The trouble is, selection might be limited. Independent garden centers can only purchase so many bulbs, as they have to guess what you will buy. If you do not buy, if a string of lousy weather keeps you at home, the bulbs are a loss.

Consequently, if you get your heart set on a particular cultivar from a catalog or online, you can’t depend on finding it in your garden center. There are thousands of cultivars in hundreds of bulb categories.

The other reason it’s tough to advise you what to buy: Even with some experience, looking at the new introductions, tried-and-true favorites, and packaged combinations – it is just overwhelming.

My suggestions for most people:

1. Get ideas from online and catalogs.

2. Figure out colors you like and where you want bulbs.

3. See what Western New York garden centers offer.

4. If you can’t find something specific that you want, then shop online – selectively.

Which companies? I saw bulb production and Keukenhof display gardens in the Netherlands, a fabulous experience. That is where our top companies buy most of their bulbs. My favorite sources are Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, and Colorblends.

Their offerings are stunning and dependable, and their owners/reps are deeply caring about bulb quality, customer service, and education. Plus, those two companies did a lot for Buffalo gardens in preparation for the GWA (the Association for Garden Communicators) annual conference in August 2017.

It’s good to have friends in the bulb business!

Snowdrops (Galanthus) are the earliest bulb flower to bloom in spring. (Photo courtesy

My best bulbs list

Almost everybody recognizes tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils (Narcissus), but some less-known bulbs deserve attention for special achievements. Here are my nominations:

For attracting hummingbirds: Bell-shaped flowers (such as Coral Bells, Mandevillas) attract the tiny long-tongued birds, so plant the bell-shaped alliums such as ‘Honeybell.’

For deer and rabbit resistance: You are safe with Narcissus, but also add the lovely blue-flowered Camassia, Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa), crocuses, hyacinths, alliums, and Fritillarias.

For early performance: Especially where snow isn’t usually too deep, it’s great to see bulbs appear as winter wanes. Galanthus (Snowdrops), hyacinths, and dwarf irises appear cheerfully early.

For latest flowering: You may not know that there are early-, middle-, and late-season tulips and daffodils, so spread the bloom time with those. Two popular late flowering tulips are ‘Angelique’ (double pink) and purple ‘Queen of Night.’ Anemone blanda and other Windflowers appear late as well.

For fragrance: When you walk into Plantasia, the Plant WNY garden and landscape show (scheduled for March 21-24, 2019) or most flower shows, the strong scent of hyacinths usually dominates. Many kinds of narcissus are also fragrant, notably ‘Poeticus’ (the Poet Narcissus.)

For naturalizing: With the right conditions, a daffodil patch will expand over the years, while tulips usually diminish (even without deer pressure). Windflowers and alliums form vigorous patches, so plant such bulbs where spreading is desired.

Least known, should be used more: In my view, the Camassia bulb is wonderful and yet rarely found, as well as Fritillarias, from the darling Checkered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris) to the huge ‘Crown Imperial.’

Tulip 'Angelique.' (Photo courtesy

Bulb success

The best advice is: Read and follow the instructions on the bag.

Timing for planting: Now. The sooner you plant in fall, the better the root growth can begin.

Soil: Workable, well-drained soil is needed; for hard clay mix in compost.

Planting depth: Basic guidance is to plant them at a depth of about 3½ times the height of the bulb, For most little bulbs that’s 1 to 3 inches; for big bulbs 7 to 10 inches. In extremely cold areas plant on the deep side of what is recommended, and mulch after the ground freezes.

Spacing: If you crowd bulbs for an impressive display they will perform in spring, but the patch will not thrive as well over time. See spacing instructions for each type.

Fertilizers: You may use “bulb-booster” type fertilizers upon planting, but most bulbs are vigorous at purchase. Fertilization after bloom next season is very valuable.

Cutting back after they flower: Do not cut them back, or tie them in a knot, until the leaves are nearly brown.

Pest management: Most bulbs are problem-free, but tulips need deer and rabbit repellent products at planting and as they emerge, and possibly fencing or very careful placement (perhaps in pots). If chipmunks and squirrels tend to dig them up, put chicken wire or netting over the bulb planting until the bulbs poke through.

Design: All bulbs look best when massed. Plant a large cluster of nine to 21 or more large bulbs, and several dozen small bulbs if you want them to be seen from any distance. Bulb producers offer excellent clusters of bulb combinations, including some with a spread of blooming period.

Growing bulbs is the least intimidating and possibly most fun part of flower gardening. Buy and plant some today.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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