Bulb ba­sics

The Buffalo News - - SCOREBOARD - Sally Cun­ning­ham is a gar­den writer, lec­turer and con­sul­tant.

I f there were ever an au­tumn that begs us to plant bulbs, this is it. We’ve had lots of time. I’m imag­in­ing the gar­den cen­ter shelves are emp­tied. You all have new beds that will burst­ing with daf­fodils and cro­cuses next spring – right? But maybe not: I also know that new home­own­ers and gar­den­ers start from scratch ev­ery year with­out much gar­den­ing knowl­edge, time, or money. Some may not know that spring-flow­er­ing bulbs, planted in fall, are the eas­i­est flow­er­ing plants to grow.

The most fa­mil­iar flow­ers of early to mid-spring are tulips, daf­fodils, hy­acinths and cro­cuses, at least in our area. I’ll en­cour­age you to try oth­ers as well. If you plant them in fall, they will flower in spring. They are hardy, so if you do things right most will live for many years and re­bloom for years.

• Site se­lec­tion and prep: Hardy bulbs need full sun or at least par­tial


Top, Ca­mas­sia bloom in late spring, thriv­ing in damp sunny lo­ca­tions. The na­tive Amer­i­can beau­ties have star­bursts of peri­win­kle blue flow­ers. Above, Crown Im­pe­rial (Fri­t­il­laria im­pe­ri­alis) is ma­jes­tic.

sun (four to six hours daily). Since de­cid­u­ous trees don’t de­velop all their leaves un­til late spring, many bulbs will get enough sun­shine for a good start un­der their canopies. When plac­ing bulbs, re­mem­ber that af­ter they flower the plants must con­tinue to grow for many weeks (their prepa­ra­tion for next year) and they can look quite raggedy. So plant them be­hind an­nu­als or peren­ni­als that will rise up in front of them, or pre­pare a bed that’s just for bulbs. For suc­cess­ful grow­ing, bulbs need sev­eral inches of loos­ened soil. You should plan to mix in com­post, es­pe­cially in de­pleted or com­pacted soil.

• Plant­ing: The right depth is ev­ery­thing. Bulb pack­ages al­ways tell you proper depth for each species, but here’s the ba­sic rule of thumb: Mea­sure the bulb’s height from bot­tom to tip and mul­ti­ply by 3.5 to fig­ure out the depth. (1-inch tall bulb needs to be planted un­der 3.5 inches of soil.) In se­verely cold ar­eas, plant bulbs slightly deeper than pack­ages in­di­cate. Spac­ing also shows on bulb pack­ages – rec­om­mended to al­low them to spread in the fu­ture. For­mal beds call for sym­met­ri­cal ar­range­ments but for most in­for­mal gar­dens the bulbs look nicest in drifts or ca­sual group­ings as if they oc­curred nat­u­rally.

Bulbs need pre­pared gar­den soil with lots of com­post mixed in. Plant them at the right depth pointy side up. (Fri­t­il­lar­ias with a flat side might best be laid side­ways.) Some folks use bulb planters or augers, but in less-than-ideal soil you’ll need a fork and spade. While a Snake’s head is a mid-spring bloom­ing bulb flower with an ap­peal­ing wild­flower look.

new bulb con­tains all its nu­tri­ents ready to use, many gar­den­ers add some bulb­booster fer­til­izer in the hole. (Af­ter they bloom next spring it’s help­ful to fer­til­ize them for fu­ture per­for­mance.) Five ways to plant bulbs: 1. In a new area dig in­di­vid­ual holes, prop­erly spaced.

2. Dig holes be­hind and around peren­ni­als and shrubs in an es­tab­lished

bed, with at least three to seven bulbs spaced apart in each hole. Large groups look best.

3. Dig a trench deeper than the bulbs re­quire, and spread some com­post. Then place the bulbs in ca­sual look­ing drifts. Use sev­eral bulbs of one species, then a drift of a dif­fer­ent type.

4. If your soil is too hard, use this easy method: Rough up the soil sur­face, add an inch of com­post, and scat­ter the bulbs on top of the soil. Then dump good gar­den soil or a com­post­top­soil mix on top of the bulb. Since this soil will set­tle a lot, make it deeper than the rec­om­mended depth.

5. Plant in tubs or large con­tain­ers. Keep bulbs far enough away from the con­tain­ers’ sides so the bulbs don’t freeze. Or bub­ble-wrap the con­tain­ers, or sink them into the ground, or put them in a cold garage.

Af­ter you have planted bulbs, watch for au­tumn rain­fall to help them start to grow roots. When rain doesn’t come, water the bed un­til the ground freezes. Es­pe­cially in a raised bed, pre­vent soil run-off by adding an inch or two of chopped leaves or an­other kind of mulch.

How late is too late to plant? The sooner you plant bulbs, the sooner they grow some roots to get started be­fore spring. But even if you plant late, most bulbs will pro­duce flow­ers next spring. What doesn’t work: Keep­ing them un-planted is usu­ally dis­ap­point­ing (with the ex­cep­tion of bulbs you are re­frig­er­at­ing to force for win­ter flow­ers in­doors – more on that an­other time).

Which bulbs?

Among the most fa­mil­iar bulbs, daf­fodils rule be­cause rab­bits and deer don’t eat them and they nat­u­ral­ize (spread) very eas­ily. Hy­acinths, Fri­t­il­laria, al­li­ums and Ca­mas­sias are deer­proof. Species tulips (the short ones) re­sist crit­ter feed­ing. Gen­er­ally tulip lovers must plan to cage the bulbs, use re­pel­lents dili­gently, or cover the beds with chicken wire. Some find suc­cess us­ing ma­nure or milor­gan­ite. Or try tulips in tubs and con­tain­ers.

Cat­a­logs show you bulbs that you might not see in your gar­den cen­ter. For area busi­nesses, the prob­lem is that bulbs have a very lim­ited time pe­riod for sell­ing. If the weather is aw­ful no­body comes in and the bulbs spoil on the shelves in the heated build­ings. And the slow­est to sell are the less­known ones. So ask the own­ers for the bulbs you want and then buy them! Or check out the great cat­a­logs such as Color­blends Bulbs (color­blends.com) or Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (brentand­beck­ys­bulbs.com). Beyond the old fa­vorites, try th­ese: • Ca­mas­sia: mid­sized plant, blue­flow­ers, both beau­ti­ful and deer-proof.

• Chion­o­doxa (Glory-of-the-snow): 4- to 6-inches tall, blue or white; plant a large swatch.

• Fri­t­il­laria: Don’t let the cost per bulb scare you; the big, showy flow­ers are worth it, and the smelly bulb re­pels an­i­mals. Plant deeply.

• Hy­acinthoides (Scilla, English or Spanish blue­bells): Pink or white; plant in a large swath and let them spread.

• Puschkinia (Le­banese squill): Pale blue, of­ten striped flow­ers; just adorable.

There are many more bulb species and also va­ri­eties or cul­ti­vars of fa­mil­iar ones. See a cat­a­log and be amazed! Bulb gar­den­ing can be a life­time ad­ven­ture. If you’re a be­gin­ner, just try some, start­ing with daf­fodils – a quick way to grow some gar­den­ing con­fi­dence.

Pho­tos courtesy Color­blends.com

Courtesy Color­blends.com

(Fri­t­il­laria me­lea­gris)

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