By Sally Ferguson – Fall is flower bulb season. As the leaves turn to autumn colors, gardeners are busy planting the tulips, daffodils and other spring-blooming bulbs that will brighten the landscape next spring. Expert gardeners say that bulbs are some of the easiest flowers for even novice gardeners to grow successfully. By following a few simple guidelines, anyone can create a fabulous spring bulb display.
Following are easy bulb planting tips provided by the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center (NFBIC) in New York City.
Choose a sunny spot. Most bulbs like to be planted in full sun, though some will tolerate partial shade. When choosing a planting site, remember that when the bulbs bloom in spring, especially early blooming bulbs, the leaves of deciduous trees won’t yet have their full complement of leaves. You may have more choice planting sites than you think!
Plant bulbs in soil that drains well. Soggy soil can rot bulbs. Avoid planting bulbs in places where water collects, such as the base of hills or hollows. When preparing the planting site, be sure to work the soil well and mix in organic compounds such as compost or peat moss. Large bulbs, such as tulips or daffodils, are planted about eight inches deep. Small bulbs, such as crocuses or grape hyacinths, are planted five inches deep. Be sure to work the soil several inches deeper than you plant the bulbs, so the roots have plenty of room.
Plant bulbs in groups. The biggest mistake that novice gardeners make is planting bulbs as “single soldiers” either in a line along a walkway or border, or just spottily throughout a bed. To get maximum color impact, cluster your bulbs. This is true whether you plant ten or ten thousand. The NFBIC offers two design tricks: – plant bulbs in a circular grouping to achieve a charming bouquet effect, – or in a triangle pattern to fool the eye into seeing more flowers than you have actually planted! To do this, position tulips or other bulbs in a triangle pattern in which the narrow point faces your favorite viewing position and the broad expanse is positioned towards the back. When the flowers bloom, the visual result is an enhanced mass of color!
What about adding fertilizer? Many people feel that they have to add fertilizer or bone meal when they plant. This isn’t necessary when planting. Bulbs come with all the food they need – inside! — to bloom the first season. That’s what a bulb is, really, a storehouse of food and moisture. However, if you plan to leave bulbs in the ground to naturalize (come back year after year), it is a good idea to fertilize with a balanced bulb food after the flowers have faded in spring to fortify the bulbs during the “recharging phase.” This is when the leaves of bulb flowers use photosynthesis to store up food for the following year’s bloom (which is why experts advise letting bulbs “die back” for six weeks after bloom before cutting back their leaves or mowing). Organic gardeners should top-dress their naturalized bulb beds in the fall, beginning in their second season, with compost or well-rotted cow manure.
What about bone meal? These days, there are several reasons to hesitate. Bone meal is simply not the best source of phosphorus for the garden, not because it doesn’t contain a lot of phosphorus but because it delivers it into the soil inefficiently. This is especially true of bone meal that has been processed by methods such as chipping or microwaving, instead of the old-fashioned steam treatment. Secondly, putting bone meal in your bulb bed is often an invitation for dogs, squirrels, voles, moles and other critters to sniff it out and dig up your garden. Lastly, there is some question whether imported bone meal is a potential transmitter of Mad Cow disease; some experts think this is an issue.
Know your bulb enemies. Some bulbs, including tulips and crocus, make favorite foods for pests such as deer or squirrels. Others, such as daffodils, fritillaries, alliums or many of the Special Bulbs, are not appealing to animal pests. If deer are a problem in your area, planting pest-resistant varieties makes good sense. If squirrels are the issue, it’s a good idea to put chicken wire over the bed or place a few old window screens over bulb beds after planting, while the ground settles, removing them once the weather turns. Chicken wire can be left in place all winter – the bulbs will bloom right through it in spring. In all cases it’s a good idea to clean up after planting. Planting supplies and bits of the bulbs’ papery tunics left on the ground just sends bulb-sniffing critters a signal there is buried treasure nearby.
(We thank Ms. Ferguson and the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center for this most informative article. For more information, please visit www.bulb.com.)