Bulbs! Hope Springs Eternal

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Hope Springs Eternal!
With bulbs planted in fall...

By Terry Olson (Plantmanaic)

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Tulips and HyacinthsAs soon as the weather starts getting nice in March, I want to see flowers blooming in my yard.  Unfortunately, March is too early to plant my petunias, zinnias, and marigolds.  As I look across the fence, I see colorful little crocuses already in bloom in my neighbor's yard and the nice green foliage of other bulbs coming up.  A month later, jealousy creeps over me as their tulips and daffodils scream glorious color at my dingy blank flowerbeds and I ask myself why I didn't take time to stick a few bulbs in the soil last fall.

General Planting Information

If you plant bulbs now, you won't have to feel envious next spring.  Bulbs are incredibly easy to grow in zones where the winters are cold.  Simply choose a spot that is sunny and drains well - loosen the soil under the bulbs to ensure good drainage and root formation.  Do not plant bulbs under eaves or in low areas where water may pool.  Also avoid areas where water will be cut off by overhangs or walls.  Too little or too much soil moisture will result in bulb death.  If you have problems with squirrels and chipmunks, try the 

Turn the soil over a few times with a spade to loosen it up and plant each bulb so that there is 4 times the amount of soil on top of the bulb as the size of the bulb.  For instance, if you're planting tulips and the bulbs measure about one-and-a-half inches then you need four times that amount of soil, or 6 inches of soil on top of the bulbs.  See "Turn Your Garden On with Bulbs" for details on selecting and planting bulbs in your lawn and garden.  Check out the handy Bulb Chart for planting depths.

Remember that except for the flower stem itself, bulb foliage should not be cut back, but should be left to die back naturally or "ripen" after blooming.  This provides the bulb with nourishment to bloom again next year.  One way to deal with the unsightly dying foliage in a mass planted bed is to plant annuals in amongst the bulbs in April.  By the time the annuals come into bloom, their foliage will mask the dying bulb foliage.

Watering and Feeding

Tulips amid grape hyacinths Watering is critical, so be sure you water them in well, and if we have an unusually dry winter, water on a warm day about once a month throughout the winter.  Once the foliage starts emerging in the spring, you'll want to be sure they receive ample moisture until after they're done blooming.  Your blooms will be larger if you fertilize with bulb food (about a tablespoon per bulb) that you place beneath each bulb at planting time.  Buy top-size bulbs (for example, tulips 12cm/4in and up in diameter) for best results.  Larger bulbs provide larger blooms.

Even though I recommend planting the bulbs in a well-prepared bed in September or October, I have been known not to follow my own good advice.  Being a retailer of bulbs who has encountered large surpluses of fall bulbs when Kansas weather has provided me with an early winter (and a short selling season), I have been known to finally get around to planting the hundreds of bulbs I got stuck with as late as  January.  This has happened on more than one occasion, and the results have always been spectacular. So don't feel that you need to be experienced or scientifically exact in your bulb planting.

Planting Methods

You can use bulbs as a mass planting for the most color effect, in containers for accent, or in the landscape to provide early color.  In mass plantings of tulips, stick to one or two varieties that bloom at the same time.

Bicolor DaffodilsContainers of bulbs are a great way to add color to porches and patios in the spring.  Use a container that drains well and a light soil.  Don't do what I did and simply plant your containers and leave them outside and expect them to bloom the next spring. Unlike bulbs in the ground, bulbs in containers are subject to freezing and thawing.  After killing a fortune in bulbs one winter in whiskey barrels I left outside, I learned the trick  of leaving the barrels in a garage or basement (40 degrees is optimal), and then setting them back in the sun in the middle of March.  One advantage to container planted bulbs is that when they're in bloom, you can move them out of the hot wind to prolong their life, unlike bulbs planted in the ground, whose blooms must stay there and get fried by hot winds.  See Layering Bulbs in Containers for diagrams and detailed information.

My favorite way to use spring flowering bulbs is in a mixed perennial bed or border to provide early color.  By planting them in clumps near perennials that emerge right after the bulbs are finished blooming, I solve the problem of unsightly bulb foliage as the emerging perennials leaf out and cover it up.  Some good perennials to plant near bulbs for cover are peonies, baby's breath, or hosta.

If you have an area that is meadow-like and doesn't have to be mowed until mid summer after the foliage of bulbs has ripened, daffodils and crocus can be planted in fall for a naturalizing carpet of color in early spring.  Don't wait until next spring to wish you had planted some colorful tulips, daffodils, and crocus last fall!  Visit a nursery or garden store that stocks top-size Holland flower bulbs right now so you can enjoy beautiful color in your landscape next spring.  See Turn Your Garden On With Bulbs - "Planting in Lawns" section for illustrations and detailed information.

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