As wonderful as spring-blooming bulbs can be in the garden, there is a side to using them successfully that leaves many gardeners dazed and confused. All bulbs are essentially easy to grow. Planted in mid- to late autumn, they bloom right on schedule without any further effort on the part of the gardener. However, the challenge is to plan ahead now for planting in September. This is the key to creating the garden you’ve been dreaming of when spring returns in March.
To be truly successful with bulbs in the garden, the gardener has to learn to think “out of season.” In other words, we have to decide now which bulbs we want to plant in the coming fall to have the best spring garden a year from now. Spring bulbs must be planted in the fall because they require a period of dormancy brought on by cold temperature to stimulate root development.
Spring’s arrival triggers bulbs to emerge into flowering plants. This is the time to visit the gardens we love the most, including public, private, urban, suburban and rural. A critical view of our gardens in spring helps us to know where additional bulbs can be planted to best effect. The growing season is when we learn which colors of flowers harmonize and which clash and where a splash of contrasting color is needed.
Bulbs can be naturalized or planted at random for an informal effect in lawns and wildflower gardens. Clumps of bulbs brighten beds and borders before other perennials reawaken in spring. Bulbs add color and interest to the garden by blooming beneath deciduous trees and shrubs. Take advantage of established evergreen plants, especially low, deep green hedges, and use them as a backdrop for a sweep of flowering bulbs.
Although the family of bulbs is easy to grow, there are a few professional planting tips worth mentioning. Most bulbs grow well in average soil and full sun. A few will do well in partial shade. They show their best assets when planted in clusters from 12 to 112. The eye is attracted to a group of similar plants. Planting in single rows or one tulip at a time can look scattered and weak.
The growing cycle of all bulbs does not end until the leaves turn yellow and die. If daffodils are left on their own to die down and wilt away, they will return to delight you year after year. Remember to place naturalized bulbs in a patch of lawn that you won’t have to mow for the first six weeks of the spring season. The best results are achieved if you take the time to plan out your planting scheme.
Indicate the areas in the garden you want to fill with color. Before shopping for bulbs, decide the kind and quantity of bulbs you will need. It helps to look around your community at neighborhood gardens. Include public parks and well-planned garden centers as well. Don’t hesitate to experiment. This is the best way to learn what bulbs you like most and which soils in your lawn or garden are best suited to bulb culture.
Although you won’t be planting bulbs this spring, keep in mind that all bulbs need well-drained soil. This could be the ideal time to prep the soil in a border that you intend to plant with spring bulbs in the coming fall. When that time comes, place the bulbs over the planting area, spacing them at regular intervals. With a trowel, dig holes to the recommended depth. For larger numbers of bulbs, it may be easier to dig out the entire bed to the proper depth before planting. Cover the bulbs with soil and water thoroughly.
Most hardy bulbs need relatively little attention during the growing season. Feeding is generally recommended for bulbs that are left in the ground for several years. Use a bulb food, raking it lightly into the soil during spring cultivation. For the best flowers, it is necessary to remove weeds by hand or with a hoe as soon as growth emerges at surface level. Take your time and take care not to damage the new shoots.
Keep a plant catalog with pictures and descriptions of spring-blooming bulbs on hand. Mark down your favorites, making notations by the photo of each plant. Now is the time, while you can actually see the garden space available, to choose plants for height, color and number. When bulbs come into the nurseries for sale in fall, you’ll be able to make clear, level-headed choices for the best spring garden ever.
Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at Write2Robb@aol.com.