Ask the gardening expert

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I am receiving gardening catalogs that are full of tulips and daffodils. Will garden centers get them in soon? When should those bulbs be planted? What should I know about them?

You’ll start seeing bulbs in stores soon — sometimes a little too soon — but that is only my opinion. You should certainly see them by the end of August or early September.

Here is more information from King County master gardener Carolyn Pauw Barden:

• It’s time to buy daffodils. You don’t need to plant daffodils just yet, but you’ll get your best selection in the stores soon. You can still order them by mail from a number of catalogs. I’m daft about daffodils, the heralds of spring. I plant more each year, even though the ones I put in last year and the years before settle in and bloom. Daffodils “naturalize” well in our climate if you keep a few simple things in mind when you plant them. And the squirrels won’t eat them. You shouldn’t either; they’re toxic.

• They must have sun. Daffodils in shade might bloom the first year you plant them, because their flower embryos were established in the farmer’s field, but they will not come back well without lots of sun, so let the light in if you want daffodils to thrive.

• They hate wet feet in summer. While they don’t mind water in the winter, they don’t want to sit about in mud during the summer while they are forming new flower embryos and going dormant. A deep, sandy root run suits them well. They will do best if they can get very dry by July. In fact, if you must plant them in an area that is irrigated heavily all summer, put them in gallon pots sunk in the soil and remove the pots to a dry place when the flowers fade. This is more work than planting in the ground, but it might save your bulbs.

• Don’t be in a hurry to clean up the dying foliage after the bloom season is over. Daffodil leaves must rot in place to form next year’s blooms. Compulsively tidy gardeners just can’t stand to see those mounds of half-shrivelled leaves, so they prune them or try to tie them up in neat bundles.

When you plant daffodils in grass, you won’t be able to mow until July at the earliest. This is another reason to grow daffodils in pots. I have better luck if I let the old growth get completely yellow and dry so it pulls off easily. You might, however, deadhead the seed pods at the top of the flower stems. This stops the plant from expending effort on growing seeds and channels its energy to blooms for next year.

• Mass the bulbs. Don’t just put one here and another lone soul over there. Daffodils like to be with their own kind, and you get a much better show when they bloom in drifts. As they naturalize and fill in, they slowly expand their clumps. I have not had to lift and divide the ones that grow in my sandy soil.

Some of those clumps have faithfully bloomed for more than 30 years without much attention from me. I weed and mulch the beds each year, and I put down some bone meal or other slow-release organic fertilizer. Then, I let the bulbs do what they want. Easy? You bet.

Celeste Lindsay is a WSU-certified master gardener. Send questions to mslindsay8@gmail.com