Fall is the time to plant the bulbs that bloom in the spring. This is obvious to gardeners or people who grew up with gardeners, but you would be amazed at how many people inquire in spring where to get tulip and daffodil bulbs. Then the answer is the more expensive way to buy them: Garden centers and florist shops have potted bulbs to sell that were “forced” – the term for causing a plant to bloom at an abnormal time. These are lovely preludes to spring.
The easy, more affordable way to have spring flowering bulbs is to plant them in fall. You can do this until the soil is frozen, although October planting will produce stronger plants than November and December planting.
So go for it: Plant April flowers now!
Bulb gardening for all?
Two things stop some people from planting bulbs, and neither one should prevent you from this truly easy kind of gardening.
One lament is that the squirrels, rabbits and deer eat them all anyway, so why bother? Not true. Deer and rabbits do not touch hyacinths, daffodils (Narcissus), alliums, fritillaria or camassia. In their enthusiasm for storing food before winter, squirrels can mess up some of these bulbs, but usually the planting survives some upheaval. (You may be surprised at their sense of design and whimsy as they place the odd tulip among your perennials.) Tulips are indeed attractive to many creatures, and especially delicious just when the buds are about to open. Try some of the critter-foiling tricks to follow, or just enjoy tulips as potted plants.
Other folks think that bulb gardening is too much hard work. And yes, if you drag yourself outside on a windy November day to try to plant them in clay soil, hole by hole, I predict that you and the bulbs will have a brief and miserable relationship. There is another way.
Tips for bulb growing
• Choose trouble-free bulbs. Daffodils (common name for all the narcissus types, including pink, coral and white) smell awful at the animal salad bar. They also tend to multiply, especially if you fertilize occasionally, unlike tulips, that tend to diminish in subsequent years. Read bulb packages to check for deer resistance and zone hardiness. (Except in protected city yards or microclimates, stick with Zone 5 hardiness cues – lower numbers meaning greater cold tolerance.)
• Taller may be better. Taller bulb types may have the most impact – all bulb packages tell you the expected height – but remember that taller flowers usually bloom a little later than short ones. So vary the heights. Taller flowers usually come from larger bulbs, meaning deeper holes. Also, consider the wind: If you have regular gales, stockier rather than long-stemmed flowers may hold up best.
• Strategic timing. I stopped planting early-blooming tulips and daffodils (and they all come in early-, mid-, and late-spring varieties) when my mother started staying in Florida until tax time. Snowbirds want to see the flowers, too. If you are extremely busy with flower shows, spring break or usually have very deep snow, then choose late bloomers. Your choice, but do the planning.
• Use blue. Yellow is so cheering in spring, but blue really pops against yellow daffs and the last glimpses of snow. Grape hyacinths and purplish blue crocuses are lovely; plant in large masses, or place them front and center where you will see them. Camassia is a little-used bulb that produces true blue flowers about 20 inches tall and has no downside. Try it with miniature daffodils, pink Angelica tulips or late-blooming hellebores.
• Masses, not spatters. What are you going to see from a distance – a great sea of strong yellow or red, or a pattern of red and yellow dots? As tempting as it is to buy a bag of every variety, force yourself to plant great swaths of one bulb kind and color.
• Plan for the ugly stage. Bulb plants must grow with the leaves intact for many weeks after the flowers finish, so put them where this won’t bother you – in their own bed, around a shrub or behind perennials such as hostas or daylilies whose foliage will mask the declining bulb leaves.
• Block those critters. Take steps to discourage animals from upsetting your plan. Some gardeners dust the bulbs or sprinkle the area with deterrent products. Many cage the bulbs with chicken wire, onion bags or nets. Fishnet stockings – once quite the rage – were perfect. I like to spread gutter guard or chicken wire over a planted area, topped with mulch, as it slows down all diggers. In spring, before nibbling begins – let’s talk then about the many tricks and excellent products.
Make planting easier
About that hard work: I have tried everything once. In heavy clay soil you have some choices: Hole by hole with a trowel or bulb planter, you’ll just hurt your hands and wrists. Standing up with a shovel, digging trenches or wide holes for many bulbs, is only a tiny bit easier. Bulb augers are wonderful if your soil is already penetrable, but in hard-baked clay they do not work as seen on TV. Raised beds or professionally prepared landscape beds make bulb planting a joy.
Here is the quickest and laziest trick: Scratch up your soil area, however hard, and spread a little compost or composty topsoil over it. Throw down some bulb fertilizer. Then scatter a lot of bulbs, randomly spaced. Pointy ends are supposed to go up, but most bulbs figure it out if you let them lie sideways. Then dump a heap of soil on top of the bulbs, as many inches as the instructions suggest. (Rule of thumb: Plant bulbs slightly deeper than three times the height of the bulb. Fat daffodil bulbs might take 9 inches.) If you want to mix in some small bulbs, poke or layer them in at the end. Pat it all down. Lay on the chicken wire or mulch. You’re done.
Don’t let the worries about animals or a little work stop you from experiencing the miracle of spring flowers.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.