Even after a long, hot summer, the allure of spring blooming bulbs is too great to resist. There they are, huge boxes and bins of plump bulbs that hold the promise that winter will not last forever. Plant them in the fall and you are guaranteed a show before the snow has a chance to bid adieu. That’s today’s podcast topic. Choosing bulbs and getting them off on a good foundation. Listen in or read on.
Are you ready to say hello to spring? You’d probably welcome winter at this point, with the uncomfortable hot weather we’re having. It will change soon enough. Right now I have my thoughts set on an exuberant spring. The sight of the first bulbs, which for me are snowdrops, always lets me breath a little easier. If those tiny bulbs can break through the frozen soil, it won’t be frozen for long.
And if you’ve been in a nursery lately, you must have noticed that the bulb bins are out in force. It’s not time for us to plant bulbs, but the stores need the shelf space to put their Christmas decorations out in October, so if you want bulbs, now is the time to get them.
Why wouldn’t you want some bulbs? These are some of the easiest plants to grow. Plant them once, give them some occasional food, and they will not only come back for years, they will multiply. Some spread by seed, as well. Which means they will be popping up in unexpected places.
Snowdrops are like that. You can start with 1 tiny clump and soon they are scattered throughout the yard. Ants are partially responsible for that – and I thank them for their efforts. Another early season all star is Scilla siberica. Is there a more beautiful blue? You should stop by Locust Grove, in Poughkeepsie, in early spring, to see their carpet of scilla.
These tiny bulbs are the best choice for planting in lawns. All bulbs need to be allowed to let their leaves yellow naturally. They need that time after the flowers fade to photosynthesize and make enough food to get through their dormant period. If you try to plant larger bulbs in the lawn, even crocus, you have to wait to mow until the leaves fade away and that can get ugly. Scilla is gone in a flash, long before the grass is tall enough to mow.
Of course, you want a long season of bulb pizzazz, so you’ll need to plant more than 1 type of bulb. The most popular and easiest to grow in our area are alliums, crocus, daffodils, glory of the snow (Chionodoxa), hyacinth, snowdrops, starflowers (Ipherion uniflorum), and tulips. These are all hardy to at least USDA Zone 5. If you live in a higher elevation that is closer to a zone 4, look for a microclimate in your yard that is sheltered from cold winds and gets abundant sunshine. Look for the spot where the snow always melts first, in the spring. That’s the spot for tender plants. A little mulch wouldn’t hurt either.
Okay, tulips aren’t that easy to grow. If the deer don’t get them, the squirrels will pluck their petals like an artichoke. I know a gardener who only grows tulips inside her vegetable garden fence. She uses them as cut flowers indoors, so she gets to enjoy them without worrying about which animal will attack first.
Crocus, snowdrops and starflowers can have a pretty quick season. They start blooming before frost, which is wonderful, but they give out as soon as we have 2 warm days in a row. For real staying power, you need to choose some later bloomers, like daffodils and hyacinth. There are early, mid-, and late season bulbs of each, so you can easily get 6 weeks or more of flowers, if you choose well.
Then there are the alliums. The smaller flowered alliums can start blooming in mid-spring, to be followed in early summer by the big, whopping flowered alliums. By then, the laggard perennials should be up and ready to do their part in the garden.
To start your bulbs off well, there are a few easy guidelines you can follow.
❦ Start by buying the best bulbs you can afford. Bulbs are graded by size and the larger the bulb, the larger and more plentiful the blooms. Smaller bulbs should bloom too, but you’ll have to wait a few years for them to be large and showy.
Even if you choose to buy a bargain bag (which is fine), make sure they are plump, firm, and don’t have any dings, mold or soft spots. If a bulb has started to rot, there’s no saving it and the problem will spread to other bulbs.
❦ As always, you need good soil. Get rid of the weeds and add some compost or other organic matter, especially if you have heavy soil. All bulbs need good drainage. They go dormant during the summer and much prefer to be on the dry side. Your bulbs are going to live in that spot for decades. Start them off well.
❦ Consider both the sun exposure and neighboring plants. Everywhere is full sun in spring, since the trees haven’t leafed out yet. But not all bulbs need full sun. Woodland bulbs, like wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), Scilla, Fritillaria and starflower actually do best in partial shade.
And remember that the leaves of bulbs are going to look ugly for a few weeks. Plant them where they will be hidden by later emerging perennials, like daylilies or bleeding heart. But don’t inter-plant them with plants that need a lot of water. As I already mentioned, bulbs like to be a bit on the dry side during the summer, while they are dormant. If the soil is kept moist, they will rot.
❦ Don’t rush planting. Just because they’re in the stores now doesn’t mean it’s time to plant. (You don’t need to make room for Christmas decorations in your garden in October.) Wait until after the first frost, if possible. If you plant too early, the bulbs may sprout and that’s a waste of the energy they need to bloom next season.
❦ The planting rule of thumb is to make a hole 3 times as deep as the bulb’s diameter. So a 1 inch round daffodil should be planted 3 inches deep. You can fudge it a bit, but don’t plant so shallowly that the bulbs get pushed above ground with the first freeze/thaw cycle.
❦ Pointed end up. That can be easier said than done, with some bulbs. If you’re looking at a flattened, doughnut shaped bulb, you can usually see some fine hair-like strands on one end. These are the dried out roots. They get planted downward.
If you really can’t tell, plant it sideways. Plants can find the light.
❦ Add handful of bulb food to each planting hole. If you have a good source of bone meal, you can use that instead, but most foods are so sanitized and pasteurized today that by-products just don’t have the nutrients they used to.
❦ Mark the Spot. I know, labels in the garden are ugly. But a stone or a flag or something to mark that you’ve planted bulbs there and to warn you not to dig in the area. We’ve all said we’ll remember and we’ve all dug up bulbs. A tiny label is a small burden to bear.
A Handful of Spring Blooming Bulbs That Do Well in the Hudson Valley
❦ Allium caeruleum – a beautiful true blue. 12 inches tall.
❦ Globemaster – one of the largest flowers with 8 – 10inch flower heads on 3 – 4 ft. plants.
❦ Allium schubertii – a crazy, fireworks flower head. 6 – 8 inch flowers on 1 -2 ft. plants.
❦ Purple Sensation – the earliest blooming of the large-flowered alliums (May-June). 4 – 5 inch flowers on 20 – 30 inch plants.
❦ Dutch Crocus (Crocus vernus) – the hardiest of the bunch. Lots of colors, sometimes with contrasting markings.
❦ Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus) – Often called “Tommies”. Lavender blooms softly streaked with cream. March/April
❦ Golden Crocus (Crocus chrysanthus) – Despite its common name, there are lots of colors available in hybrids. Small flowers with a nice, sweet scent.
Glory of Snow
❦ Chionodoxa forbesii – The species. 6 inch plants with small blue, start-shaped flowers with a white center
❦ Chionodoxa luciliae (Gigantea Group) – Flowers reach 1 1/2 inches across and are a pale violet with a white center.
❦ Pink Giant – Not really that large, but nice pink flowers with a white center.
❦ Blue Giant – one of the largest of the single hyacinths, at 10+ inches. Early to mid-season
❦ Hollyhock – Very distinctive reddish pink double hyacinth. Early to mid-season
❦ Grape Hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) – Not really a hyacinth, but they smell delicious and spread quickly.
❦ Jonquilla Daffodil – Only hardy to zone 5, but these have multiple flowers per stem and a lovely scent.
❦ Split Corona Daffodils – The trumpet is split at least partially, giving them a fluffy, frilly appearance.
❦ Trumpet Daffodils – These are the ones we traditionally think of, with an elongated cup and 1 large flower per stem.
❦ You will generally just find scilla siberica, but it’s also worth looking for the white variety, scilla siberica ‘alba’
❦ While there are many varieties of Galanthus, you will need to look in a specialty catalog to find them.
❦ Galanthus elwesii and Galanthus woronowii (G. ikariae) – great for naturalizing
❦ Darwin – Longer lived than most tulips. Large flowers (up to 6 in.) on tall plants (2 ft.) Mid to late season.
❦ Fringed – Edges look pinked or torn. Very elegant, with long lasting flowers. Late season
❦ Parrot – very dramatic, with curled or twisted petals and multi-colors. Mid-season
❦ Single Early – Usually bloom in April and have very sturdy stems. Early season