Fall is the time to plant tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinths and other bulbs that bloom in spring. "People figure plants this cool must be tricky," says Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center (NFBIC) in Danby, Vt. "But, really they're super easy to grow! And just one afternoon planting this fall can yield weeks of color next spring!"
The NFBIC offers fall bulb gardeners easy-to-follow design and planting tips. Those wishing to delve deeper can visit the center's website www.bulb.com to find abundant info on many things flower bulb related.
Dream in Color. Bulb have a surprise factor. You start with small brown blobs planted in fall, and in spring colorful flowers pop up! Often in places you don't remember planting! With bulbs, the color palette is endless. Just choose what you like best. Experiment. Try something new every season. Who's to say you can't top the combos you loved last spring. For a full and satisfying spring, choose different bulbs to bloom in spring's three mini seasons: early, mid and late.
Choose bulbs suited to your area. Most hardy spring bulbs will do well in cooler climate areas. Where winters are warmer, however, it's important to choose bulbs that will handle those conditions. Most daffodils and other narcissi, for instance, thrive and naturalize in USDA zones 3 to 8. Gardeners in zone 9 may be surprised to know that many narcissi thrive there, as well, including many of the triandrus, cyclamineus, jonquilla, tazetta, miniature and species types. There are even tulips that do well in zone 9. Also consider pests, especially deer. If deer are a big problem in your area, then you might want to avoid snackable tulips and crocus. For lists of warm weather bulbs, pest resistant bulbs and tips on handling pesky critters, visit www.bulb.com.
Plant bouquets of color. Single bulbs scattered through a landscape yield an appealing naturalistic look. But resist any temptation to plant bulbs as "soldiers in line" marching along a walkway or border or in a bed. For a fuller color effect, plant bulbs in clusters. This technique creates charming bouquets of color in the garden. The NFBIC offers two design ideas:
Plant clusters of bulbs (7 and up) in circular groupings to achieve pleasing levels of color saturation, Fool eyes into seeing more flowers than are actually planted! To do this, position tulips or other bulbs in triangle patterns where the narrow point faces a favorite viewing position and the broad expanse is positioned towards the back. When the flowers bloom in spring, the result is a visually-enhanced mass of color.
Plant When Soil Cools Down. For optimal results, bulbs should be planted at least six weeks before hard frosts sock in locally to give bulbs time to root and establish themselves before winter. While it's best not to plant too late and hamper rooting, it's no better to plant too early as too-warm soil can lead to disease problems for bulbs. A good rule of thumb is to plant bulbs when the average fall nighttime temperatures in your area reach and stay in the range of 40° F to 50° F (4° C to 10° C). At that point the soil temperature should be just right for tucking bulbs underground for their winter's rest. Buy Early for Best Selection. It often pays to buy bulbs early when stocks are high and not sold out. You can store these early-purchases in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight until it's time to plant locally. A tip: jot your preferred planting dates in your datebook so the planting season won't slip away.
Oops Happens. If you forget to plant or miss getting your bulbs into the ground on schedule, plant them as soon as you can. Don't save them to plant in spring or the following autumn. Bulbs aren't dormant like seeds and won't survive out of the ground indefinitely. Even if you find an unplanted sack of tulips or daffodils in January or February, plant them then (in garden or in pots) and take your chances. No matter what, they're better off in the ground or a chilled pot than wasting away in the garage or cupboaRoad Give them a shot: after all, they're survivors by natural design!
Read the labels. Whether the bulbs come in the mail, or from the local garden center, they usually come with instructions. Read them, they'll tell you everything you need to know. And keep the label together with the bulbs until planting. Without the label, you can't tell the red tulips from the white ones just by looking at the bulbs. Also, check planting depth instructions. Generally big bulbs (tulips, daffodils, etc) are planted about 8 inches deep and small bulbs (crocus, muscari, scilla, etc) about 5 inches deep.
Plant in preferred sites. You can plant bulbs just about anywhere in your yard or garden — so long as the soil drains well and there will be enough sunshine come sprouting time. Avoid areas where water collects or puddles. For sun seekers: remember, in early spring most trees have not leafed out yet, so sunny spots are generally easier to come by.
Plant the pointy end up. It's easy to spot the pointy end of a tulip. Tougher to spot the business end of a crocus. But in most cases, even if you don't get it right, the bulb flower will still find its way topside. If you're really unsure, plant the bulb on its side. It will right itself. Forget fertilizer. No fertilizer is necessary for a bulb's first year bloom, so don't waste your money. Bulbs are natural storehouses of food. They don't need anything more. On the other hand, bulbs intended to naturalize or perennialize (return for several years) or bulbs coming into their second year of bloom will appreciate an energy boost in fall or early spring from an application of organic fertilizer such as compost or well-rotted cow manure, or a slow release bulb food.
Add water, wait. After planting, it's a good idea to water bulb plantings well so their roots start growing. This is an essential part of their life cycle. Once those roots are started, you can just sit back and wait. Mother Nature will do the rest. You Might Want to Mulch. In general, bulbs planted at the correct depth (or even a little deeper) will do well with or without mulch as they contain natural sugars that act as a sort of anti-freeze. Still, garden mulch can be very useful over winter to keep the soil consistently cool and to minimize the effects of seasonal frost heaves.
It is especially useful in areas where the ground can be expected to freeze very deep. Important note: wait until the ground cools down in fall before adding mulch over bulb beds. Adding mulch too early promotes disease and invites critters to nest there. (Poor you, lucky them: cozy room with a bulb smorgasbord!)
And that's about it. Bulbs are easy. Tuck bulbs in the ground this fall, the more the merrier. Next spring you'll be glad you did.