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Beautiful Bulbs: Fall Planting for Spring Colour
by Lesley Reynolds
September 10, 2000

As we enjoy the August sunshine, admiring the glories of the maturing harvest and the colourful display of late summer-blooming perennials, spring seems very far away. However, it's not too soon to begin planning for next year's garden.
Despite the relatively short prairie growing season, it is possible to have flowers blooming in your garden from April to October. The very best way to achieve a glorious spring garden is to plant plenty of bulbs in the fall. You will be amply rewarded for a little bit of autumn labour by the delightful array of blooms they will provide from April to June.
By the beginning of September many wonderful varieties of spring-flowering bulbs have arrived in local garden centres. Some gardeners seeking unusual or hard to find bulbs choose to order from specialized catalogues for fall delivery; however, there are plenty of choices available off the shelf, provided you shop early.
Spring-flowering bulbs include the familiar tulips and daffodils, but there are also many hardy smaller bulbs that are deserving of a place in the garden. Try dainty crocuses for bloom in early spring. Species crocuses and larger-flowered Dutch hybrids are available with blue, white, purple, yellow and striped flowers. Bulbous irises, such as the lovely purple Iris reticulata, which often appears by the end of March, are surprisingly hardy.
Siberian squill (Scilla sibirica) has delightful blue, bell-shaped flowers and will multiply every year. Striped squill (Puschkinia scilloides) produces delicate blooms that are white with a blue stripe in the middle of the petals. Both reach about 15 cm when in flower.
Other small, early-blooming plants include glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae), which has narrow leaves and clusters of blue, white-centred flowers, and snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), another dainty plant producing nodding white flowers. Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) blooms later than other small bulbs, bearing tight clusters of blue, violet, or white flowers that really do resemble tiny bunches of grapes.
Tulips grow very successfully in prairie gardens. There are new introductions every year and a proper selection of varieties will ensure bloom from April through June. Tulips may be short or tall and there are many bloom colours and flower forms to choose from. Species tulips bloom early: Tulipa tarda has small yellow and white flowers and will multiply over the years, while T. turkestanica has delicate star-shaped white and yellow blossom. Tulipa praestans has multiple scarlet blooms per stem and foliage edged in dark red; T. greigii also has attractive foliage striped with purple and red, yellow, or bicoloured flowers. Other short border tulips, such as T. kaufmanniana, the waterlily tulip, open up flat in the sun.
Larger, more familiar, varieties that flower slightly later include the Triumph and Darwin hybrids, and the lily-flowering tulip with its long pointed petals. Tulips are also available with fringed or ruffled petals, and gorgeous double peony-like flowers
Daffodils (Narcissus spp.) bloom for three to four weeks in early spring. Like tulips, they are available in many shapes and sizes. Colours range from white to cream, every shade of yellow, orange, pink and scarlet. Tiny little daffodils such as 'Minnow,' 'Hawera,' or 'Tête-à-Tête' are perfect for rock gardens. Daffodil flower forms include trumpet ('King Alfred'), double-flowered ('Ice King'), bunching-flowered ('Cheerfulness'), large-cupped ('Scarlet Elegance'), and small-cupped ('Barrett Browning').
Since the blooming periods of different bulbs vary, combine several types that flower at different times to achieve continuous colour all spring long. The best effect in flower beds is achieved by planting bulbs in groups for blocks of colour. Bulbs may also be naturalized in small clusters around trees, shrubs, or in grassy areas.
Choose a location that receives adequate light. While bulbs will tolerate some shade, those in the sunniest locations will bloom earliest. Areas under deciduous trees work well since the trees will not have leafed out yet when spring bulbs are in bloom.
Bulbs will do best if given about six to eight weeks to establish roots before the ground freezes. This is particularly important for daffodils, which should be planted by mid-September. Bulbs prefer a rich, well-drained soil. Compost or peat moss may be used to improve the tilth and fertility of poor soil. In addition, a bulb booster such as 9-9-6 may be mixed into the soil at the bottom of planting holes.
Plant bulbs pointed side up at a depth equivalent to three times the height of the bulb. In the Chinook zone, larger bulbs may be planted slightly deeper to avoid premature growth during warm spells. Cover with soil, press down firmly, and water well.
If bulbs are planted in an overly warm location, such as against a south wall, Chinooks or sunny early spring days may cause them to emerge too early and freeze. To help prevent this, bulb beds should be mulched with about 10 cm of leaves, straw or evergreen branches after the ground has frozen. This will protect the bulbs from warm weather and retain moisture.
When bulbs have finished blooming in the spring, cut off the flower stems. However, leave the foliage to die naturally, as the leaves will store food for the bulbs for the next year. Apply a so-called bulb fertilizer, such as 4-10-8, 7-10-5, 5-10-5, or 5-10-10, or a good balanced fertilizer such as 20-20-20 when bulbs start growing in spring and again after they finish blooming.

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