Now that fall is here, I think a lot about planting and garden maintenance. Wait a minute, when don’t I think about that! One of the classic gardening activities this season is bulb planting. There’s no better season and bulbs provide years of enjoyment for very little time and money. Here are a few bulb planting tips ensure the best results for next season.
Why Fall is Best
If you’ve been to a garden center anytime after summer, you’ve no doubt noticed the spring flowering bulb displays. The reason bulbs are so popular at this time is because they need to be planted in fall in order to perform their best. The soil is still warm enough to promote early root growth and a chilling period is still ahead, an essential element to a great spring display.
Plant bulbs too early when temperatures are still warm, such as late summer or early September and you run the risk of confusing the bulb into thinking its spring. Spring flowering bulbs need time to chill. On average this time ranges around 12 weeks although some bulbs like snowdrops, crocus and scilla can get by with around six. Without the proper length of chill time, they won’t bloom then, or next spring either.
Waiting too late is also a bad idea. The ground could be frozen or the bulbs may not have enough chill time before spring arrives. Again, you’ll get foliage without flowers. Generally, the best time to plant spring flowering bulbs is in October. However, keep in mind this time will vary depending on where you live. In colder climates, late September is fine, while in warmer areas, you can plant right up until late December if the ground is not frozen.
Bulbs are available everywhere in the fall, including garden centers, catalogues, mail order suppliers and the internet. The advantage to purchasing your bulbs locally is that you can pick them out individually. That’s important because you want the largest, firmest bulbs.
Select larger bulbs. They will generally perform better and have a superior display. Look for firmness which indicate a healthy fresh bulb and avoid any bulb that feels soft or mushy. They are well passed their prime and will likely be duds in your garden.
The disadvantage to purchasing locally is that your selection will be limited. Online or catalogue ordering is ideal for the largest selection. You can preorder any time of year so you have the benefit of actually selecting what you want, not only what’s available. Even when you preorder, companies that sell bulbs will ship to you at the ideal planting time for your area. This takes the worry out of having to store them properly yourself. However, when the bulbs arrive, plant them as soon as possible.
How to Plant Bulbs
In the absence of specific planting instructions, generally bulbs are planted at a depth about three times as deep as the bulb. Most bulbs have an obvious pointed end. That goes up. The other end is usually wider and has tiny root hairs. When in doubt, plant the bulbs on their sides. Nature will take care of the rest.
All bulbs prefer fertile, well drained soil. Planting areas that are damp or poorly drained will shorten the life and performance of the bulbs. Amending the planting area is advised. Use compost and organic amendments. Incorporating some bone meal or bulb fertilizer at this time is also helpful and will contribute to the long term performance of your bulbs. .
Look for sites that offer at least six hours of sun for best displays. Locations under deciduous trees will often work, especially for early season bulbs such as crocus, snowdrops and some daffodil varieties. These work because their foliage and flowers have access to sunlight before the taller trees leaf out.
The tools used for the physical act of planting bulbs are personal preference. You might choose a handheld bulb planter for smaller beds to a shovel for digging larger areas for a more naturalized look or when using many bulbs.
One trick that works well for both is to use an auger that is designed to be used with a cordless drill. You can find these usually wherever bulbs are sold. It works beautifully and makes the planting process fun. Just be sure you have your drill batteries fully charged!
Bulbs look more natural when they appear grouped rather than in a straight line like soldiers. In all cases, plant in quantity! Bulbs are inexpensive and have far more appeal and visual impact when you plant in larger groups.
Finally, keep in mind newly planted bulbs are attractive to foraging critters as well. Before calling it a day, consider laying down a layer of wire mesh or screen with openings around ½ inch. That will keep the critters from digging up your bulbs and stealing the show for next spring. Remove the wire before the new foliage emerges next spring.
In either case a two inch layer of mulch over your newly planted bulbs will not only conceal the screen, but will help retain moisture and keep the soil warmer a bit longer so roots can more quickly establish. Finally, water in and maintain adequate moisture to ensure success.
One of my favorite parts about having spring flowing bulbs in my garden is that they are so care free. Once the initial planting is complete, very little is required beyond that to have years of spring color. One caution is worth noting. Once bulbs finish blooming, they can become a bit unsightly as the flowers fade and the foliage dies back.
Resist the temptation to cut back the dead foliage too early. It is essential that the leaves remain on the plant until they turn completely yellow. From flowering until this time, those leaves are photosynthesizing, providing the nutrients and energy the bulb needs until next year.
Lastly, an annual feeding of compost and bone meal, rich in phosphorus is important as a nutrient supplement for long-lasting performance. A synthetic bulb fertilizer can also be used. Look for one made for bulbs. It will have a higher middle number in the analysis ratio on the package.
For minimal time and money, your fall planting work is finished and the reward will be a display of bright and beautiful colors to bring in the spring season for years to come