Fall officially arrived on September 23, the gardening season is winding down and if you are like me, you are winding down too. I am eager to complete the fall chores and put my garden to bed. But there is one more thing that I will be planting this fall– some spring flowering bulbs. I love to see the tulips, daffodils, crocus, scilla and allium blooming in the spring, signaling the end to what are usually our long winters. But in addition to the colors there is another reason to plant spring blooming bulbs — pollinators will need nectar and pollen as early as April and these spring blooms will supply this.
There are several other reasons to plant bulbs in your garden. First they are easy to grow. When you buy a bulb it has everything it needs to grow and bloom. It contains not only a flower bud but also all the stored energy it needs to produce a flower the first year. Bulbs are actually little storage containers of carbohydrates ready to send up shoots after a cold dormant period. Hardy bulbs need to go through this cold period (vernalization) so they should be planted in September or October, but you can plant them any time before the ground freezes.
In addition to providing early color, feeding pollinators and being easy to grow, bulbs are relatively inexpensive. But remember, as with anything else, you get what you pay for and cheaper is not always better. Large bulbs may cost more but they have more stored energy to produce bigger blossoms. Occasionally, bulbs that are too small may come up but fail to bloom the first year. Avoid nicked or scarred bulbs, they may have poor root growth, and bulbs which are shriveled or moldy may be diseased or rotting. You may save a few dollars by waiting until garden centers have sales on bulbs, but if these sales are near the end of the season your selection may be limited.
When you chose a site to plant bulbs, you should take several things into consideration. Choose a warm and sunny location, keeping in mind that your plants will come up and bloom before the trees have completely leafed out so there may be more sunny locations in your yard in the spring than in the summer. Your site should contain well-drained soil, rich in organic matter. If the soil is not well drained you run the risk of your bulbs rotting in the soil. You can add organic material, such as peat, to improve both the texture of the soil and improve the drainage. And you can also add a small amount of slow release fertilizer, such as bone meal, into the planting hole and stir it in.
Once you have prepared your site you can plant your bulbs. Most packaging will tell you how deep to plant them but a general rule of thumb is that they are planted at a depth of 2 ½ times the diameter of the bulb. The larger tulip bulbs will be planted deeper than the small scilla ones. Make sure you plant them with the flat, hairy, root end down and the pointed end up. Cover with a layer of soil and water well. Make sure they are watered until the ground freezes. I also cover the planted area with screening or mesh because I have squirrels that love to dig up my newly planted bulbs as they are storing food for the winter. (One fall I planted bulbs in the front of the house, walked to the back to get my screening and returned to find that they had already dug up the bulbs I had just planted!)
The trick to being sure that the bulb flowers in the succeeding years is to be sure that the bulb is restocked with plenty of carbohydrates for the next season. The way the plant does this is through photosynthesis, after it has bloomed. Very often people wonder why their tulips or hyacinths fail to bloom after the first year. While there can be many reasons, the answer often is that the leaves of the plant are cut down after the flower fades, which means the bulb is unable to produce any stored food for next year’s bloom. Once your flower has faded cut the flower stalk only, before it has a chance to go to seed, (seed production will also use energy that could go into the bulb for next year’s bloom). Leave the leaves on the plant until they yellow completely. If the withering leaves are unsightly, try planting annuals around the bulb leaves. Bulbs are compatible with many annuals.
I hope to see many spring blooms next year.