Fall for bulbs
Gardens inherently occupy a fourth dimension. Plants react instantly to the passage of time: every day, every season, every year. Gardeners must also become temporary creatures, understanding that planting must precede enjoying the plant.
The time periods vary. A sweet basil planted in late spring will be rewarded almost immediately, but will be consumed by the end of summer. A shade tree will take several years to deliver on its promise, but will last for generations.
In the balancing act of waiting and being rewarded, no plant species offers such a short wait for as much long-lasting pleasure as spring bulbs. They are generally planted between September and November and can flower from February to June. So they are not strictly limited to spring, although most of their exhibit is from March to May – the most dynamic period of the year, when the garden shifts from largely barren to lavishly lush.
The “bulb” comes in many guises—true bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and corms—but the point is, the sleeping organ in your hand has stored all the energy it needs to grow and thrive. This means that even people who don’t consider themselves green-fingered gardeners will have success with bulbs if they follow a few basic rules.
The sequence of bulbs in the first months of the year goes (loosely) as follows: winter aconites, snowdrops, bulbous iris, crocus, early daffodils, scilla, snow glory, varieties of tulips, snowflakes, muscari, hyacinths, mid-season daffodils, high-season tulips, late daffodils, camassias and alliums.
The order can and will change with the weather. In mild winters, now not uncommon, monkshood, snowdrops and early daffodils can appear two to four weeks earlier than in previous years. At the opposite end of the season, warm days in late April can blow up tulips and daffodils, shortening their display.
[Planting bulbs offers a bit of hope for better things to come]
It’s best not to worry about that; a wide variety of spring bulbs blooming for several weeks will even out the vagaries of the weather and provide a season of welcoming cheer. They are extremely versatile, with miniature bulbs suitable for the smallest of spaces, including pots. Planted by the hundreds, bulbs can hold an entire landscape area and then retreat to allow other plants to step onto the stage.
Spring bulbs bring the garden to life while deciduous ground covers and woody plants are just waking up. This role has taken on greater significance in recent years, as gardeners have moved to plant more perennials and grasses geared to summer, fall, and even winter (with their dried top growth). Spring bulbs are also natural companions for these grasses and perennials (and deciduous ground covers), as the bulbs can be tucked in between them without competing for space, given their different life cycles.
Where to get lamps?
Traditional flower bulb catalogs are still there, most with long-standing connections with growers and shippers in the Netherlands. They have also moved online. Or you can buy bulbs from other online retailers (some from the same traditional catalogs), although the prices may not be a bargain and the varieties can be very limited.
When comparing, look not only at the mentioned variety of lamp, but also at the size. This is measured by circumference and displayed in centimeters. Larger bulbs generally have more flowering stems.
[The unexpected elegance of the daffodil]
Mass merchandisers are among the first to offer spring bulbs — and they have some of the best prices, too — but be careful. Bulbs are best kept in cool, airy places and will spoil under unfavorable conditions, so it’s best to buy bulbs soon after they hit the shelves, then either get them in the ground or store them yourself . Garden centers generally have a wider selection of bulbs and (hopefully) know how to handle them.
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One way to reduce the unit cost of a bulb is to buy in bulk, and some catalogs offer quasi wholesale prices with a minimum order size. Since most people don’t plant close enough for optimal effect and enjoyment, these cheaper bulbs are a great way to remedy that. In addition, flower bulb traders have switched to offering themed collections of undisclosed varieties to the general consumer as a way to reach novice gardeners and achieve bulk sales at a low cost per bulb.
Another way to save money is to wait until late in the market season for the bulbs to go on sale, either at brick-and-mortar stores or online retailers. The downside is that availability will decrease and stocks may be at risk, especially for bulbs that have been on the shelves for weeks.
When to plant?
Bulbs are living things that are programmed to break dormancy and start growing as soon as they are in the ground and the soil is cool and moist. They need a cool and airy place to wait for planting. The best place to store spring bulbs is in the refrigerator (not the freezer). Do not keep them near apples or other fruits, which give off gas and can disrupt the flowering of the bulbs. Check them regularly and remove any bubbles that show mold or softness.
[It’s tulip-planting time]
If you enjoy gardening, consider getting an inexpensive refrigerator to store bulbs, seeds, and cut flowers. An old-fashioned variety that is not frost-free is optimal, because it has more moisture. Set the refrigerator on the warmer side to prevent accidental freezing.
Planted bulbs require a minimum of weeks to grow in low temperatures to flower successfully. This requirement varies by breed, but is usually a minimum of 12 weeks. The earlier a species blooms in spring, the sooner it should be in the ground. Snowdrops are particularly perishable and should be planted as soon as possible, preferably in September.
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Tulip bulbs can be planted last, if stored properly. If the ground freezes, bulb planting will come to a halt, so don’t wait too long.
How to plant?
Choose a suitable site, preferably in an area with light shade or a sunny position. Bulbs are effective woodland plants, but if they are placed too deep in an area with trees, the foliage will not receive enough sunlight to flower well in successive years.
Most types of bulbs are native to dry, rocky landscapes and dislike heavy clay soil that remains too wet, especially during summer dormancy. Irrigation systems are no friend of the bulb.
The standard advice is to plant a bulb at a depth twice as high, so a 2 inch bulb will need a 4 inch hole. Please don’t pull out a tape measure with every lamp; just bury the tops. The deeper you can plant a bulb, the safer it is for squirrels. I like to plant tulip bulbs at six or seven inches.
[These miniature flowers are perfect for small spaces and budgets]
Bulbs don’t need to be planted upright – they’ll figure out which way is up – although planting nose up and roots down makes the gardener feel better and can save the plant some growing effort. If you are planting tubers that are difficult to visually orientate, place them on their sides.
Having the right tools makes all the difference. Avoid cheap, flimsy trowels. A quality spade is fine for planting small bulbs, but for larger ones, such as daffodils, tulips, and alliums, you’ll definitely need a handheld bulb planter. (And, I suggest, a cushioned kneeler.) A long-stemmed bulb planter uses the legs, which is much more efficient, and your strength will be amplified if you have sturdy boots and strong gloves. It helps to have a partner on the ground who places the bulbs. If you have compacted soil, heavy clay, or rock-embedded soil, try a pickaxe pickaxe. You can buy a bulb planter that attaches to a cordless drill, but it works best in improved loamy soil. It can halt and jolt into the ground full of buried rocks or tree roots.
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If you are planting in a bed where there are no other plants, such as an annual flower bed or part of the vegetable garden, you can dig out an entire trench with a shovel. This is an efficient way to plant dozens of bulbs, which can be pulled out after flowering or moved when the leaves begin to wilt. I grow tulips this way and replace them with dahlias in May.
One approach is to increase the existing drift of plants such as daffodils, crocuses and snowdrops each fall. But you do need to know where the current bulbs are, because by fall the telltale foliage is long gone. Before the bulbs retreat in late spring, mark the edge of the colony with a thin bamboo stick pushed well into the soil. You can also take photos to locate orbs.
Specially formulated fertilizer is useful for bulbs that are forced into pots (after cooling), but is generally not as important for people in the garden. When using it, make sure it doesn’t come into direct contact with the bulbs and avoid nitrogen rich foods.
Wildlife can be a problem. Squirrels are attracted to disturbed soil and love tulip and crocus bulbs. You can place wire mesh (hardware cloth) or burlap over planted areas, hidden by mulch, but remember to remove it before the stems emerge. Voles burrow underground and can eat your bulbs without you even knowing it (until spring). If you have a problem with voles, one tactic is to put a handful of pea gravel around the bulb when you plant it. Deer also have a penchant for bulbs, especially tulips. If you can’t rule out deer, plant daffodils, chionodoxa, and alliums.
If you live in Plant Hardiness Zone 8 or higher of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you may need to select bulb varieties with a low winter chill requirement or purchase bulbs that are pre-chilled. Contact the horticultural advisor in your province.
Whatever you do, hurry. Fall has arrived and the quality of your spring rests on your industry for the next few weekends.
Lead and icon illustrations by Jeannie Phan.