All About Bulbs

When to Plant

To plant your pretty visions of spring, you must start this fall. The majority of spring-flowering bulbs are planted in late September through November.

What to Look For

When purchasing tulips, daffodils or other spring blooming bulbs, select only those that are plump, firm, and blemish-free. Many varieties have skins like onions that are partially or completely removed. This will not affect their quality.

Where to Plant

Spring-flowering bulbs are among the most versatile perennials when planted properly. They can be inter-planted with herbaceous perennial flowers, around shrub borders, along pathways, in separate flower beds, and naturalized in lawns.

Most spring-flowering bulbs perform best with morning sun and afternoon shade. Flowers will last much longer in such a setting, but you must provide protection from drying winds which often scorch flower petals.

The early-blooming bulbs, including snowdrops (Galanthus) and winter aconite (Eranthis), will do beautifully beneath trees and shrubs whose canopy of shade does not unfurl until after the blossoms fade.

Well-Drained Soil is Key

All spring-flowering bulbs will grow best in well-drained soils. This is especially important to ensure bulb longevity.

To prepare the soil, dig down to a depth of 8 to 10 inches. If your soil is predominantly clay, it is important to mix in a combination of compost or sphagnum peat moss to improve drainage and encourage healthy root development. Add an organic bulb fertilizer as recommended on the label. These specialty bulb fertilizers are generally high in phosphorus (the middle number in the formula).

How to Plant

Most bulbs will do best and survive the longest in a sandy loam or clay loam. In heavy, clay-textured soils, plant bulbs 1 to 2 inches more shallow than recommended.

Many gardeners like to dig individual holes for each bulb with a bulb planter, but the spring bloom is much more effective when bulbs are planted in a group or mass planting. Never plant in rows like soldiers lined up in formation.

To do this, remove enough soil to accommodate all the bulbs going into a given area. Fertilizer and compost can be easily applied at the bottom of the excavated bed and incorporated a bit deeper where the roots will grow.

After the bulbs are set in place, cover them with approximately half of the amended excavated soil, and lightly scatter additional bulb fertilizer on top. Don't forget to amend the backfill soil with compost (25 to 30 percent by volume) before shoveling it onto the planted bulbs. Then, finish filling in the bulb bed with remaining soil. Finally, water the area thoroughly. A clever trick for marking the bulbs location is to use a disposable wooden chopstick on which you have written the name of the bulb.

Consider planting bulbs with or near ornamental grasses. As the foliage dies back on the bulbs, it will be hidden by the new spring growth of the ornamental grasses.

Water new bulb beds periodically throughout the season to ensure good root growth. Check the soil with a hand trowel. If it is beginning to dry out, water as necessary before the soil freezes solid. We've found that fall and early winter watering may be necessary every three to four weeks, depending upon the flower bed's exposure.

After the first hard frosts, apply a layer of organic mulch to the bulb bed: 2 to 3 inches of shredded cedar mulch, aspen mulch, dried grass clippings (those not treated with herbicides), or shredded leaves will help to retain moisture, reduce weed growth, and prevent soil heaving.

Which End is Up?

Bulbs should be planted with root end downward and growing end upward. It isn't always easy to tell which is which. Most bulbs, on close inspection, reveal a few root remnants or nubs to help guide you. The growing point is often already formed and apparent. Bulbs such as tulips and hyacinths have a pointed end, which is planted up, and a flattened basal plate, which goes down. When in doubt, lay the bulb on its side.

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