Columns, In the Garden

It’s Time to Plant Spring Bulbs

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Plant all bulbs pointy end up.

by Henry Homeyer

CORNISH FLAT, N.H. – I’ve been planting bulbs around my property for at least 40 years, and some of them are still flowering each spring. I even have daffodils I brought up from my childhood home in Connecticut that might be 70 years old or more. Others run out of energy and disappear with time. If you haven’t done so yet, now is the time to get some and plant them.

First, let’s look at the basics: what makes a bulb plant survive and flourish? Decent soil. It must be well drained. Soggy soil rots bulbs. If you have a heavy clay soil, it will stay wet and is not a good place for bulbs unless you add plenty of compost to the planting hole to help it drain better.  Planting on a hillside helps, too, as water will drain off a hillside.

That said, there are a few bulbs that do fine in moist soil. Camassia a lesser-known bulb plant that blooms in late spring with blue, purple or white star-shaped blossoms arranged on a central stem. Some are two to three feet tall, or more. In the northwest, some grow in moist meadows or along the edges of woodlands. I’ve grown them, and found a planting lasts about five years.  There is one daffodil that does well in moist soil: Thalia. It is very late, white, and a bit frilly.

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These tulips will be planted in the raised bed and covered with extra soil to get six inches of coverage

Bulb flowers take shade better than sun-loving perennials. Growing up we had hundreds of daffodils that bloomed along a woodland path behind the house. The leaves got sunshine and re-charged the bulbs before the trees were fully leafed out. Of course if you have plenty of sunshine, all the better.

Some people have had great luck planting daffodils in a grassy field or lawn. I’ve done that, but find that the bulb foliage is still green and producing food for the bulb when the lawn needs to be cut. If you cut the foliage too early, your bulbs won’t perform as well. I like to plant daffodils in flower beds between big clumps of hostas. They can bloom early, and then their dying foliage is hidden by the hosta leaves.

Some gardeners dig a little hole for each bulb, but that seems like too much work for me, even if you have one of those tools that are made for digging small round holes. I’d rather use my shovel to dig one oversized hole, one big enough for the 25 bulbs or more. For large bulbs like daffodils or tulips a hole 24 to 36 inches long and 18 to 24 inches wide is fine for 25 bulbs.

For the big bulbs I dig a hole six to eight inches deep. Then I add compost and some organic fertilizer or “bulb booster” fertilizer and stir it into the bottom of the hole. I place the bulbs on the improved soil, pointy end up, and cover with more improved soil.

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Preparing a bed to plant 100 tulip bulbs as annuals in the vegetable garden

What about those hungry, bulb-stealing squirrels? They don’t eat daffodils as they are vaguely poisonous. They may dig a few up to see what you planted, but they won’t eat them. “Yech,” they say, if they inadvertently take a bite.

When I interviewed the White House gardener in 1999 he said they planted thousands of tulips each year, despite the rampant gray squirrels. He said they planted the tulips and covered them with soil, then put down a layer of chicken wire, then more soil. Oh, and he said they fed the squirrels all winter with cracked corn. Squirrels that are not hungry are less likely to try to steal your bulbs. Squirrel welfare.

Some people have great luck with tulips coming back, but I consider them annuals. In general, I find that the second year only half the tulips come back to bloom, the third year only half of those come back and so on. But I often plant 100 tulips, all one color for a blast of color in spring. I particularly like the tall ones that bloom a bit later.

“Maureen” is one of my favorite tulips. She is a 28 inch tall tulip, a creamy white that blooms in May. “Menton” blooms at the same time and is rose-pink with apricot-pink petal edges and is 26 inches tall. Wow. They make a nice mix.

If you consider your tulips annuals, you can plant them in your vegetable garden and pull them after blooming. Then you can plant tomatoes or something else there. I plant them close together, and they do fine. And if you have a deer problem, you can easily fence a small plot for 100 tulips with four poles and some bird netting

The little bulbs are great early harbingers of spring, particularly snowdrops. Snowdrops are small white globes on four-inch stems. Mine fight through frozen soil in early March. Some years (when we have deep snow) I shovel snow off the hillside where they appear so they can bloom on schedule. Each year I have more, so now, after decades, I have a many hundreds.

Other early bloomers include winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), a small up-ward looking six-petaled brilliant yellow flower. Another favorite of mine is glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae). This is a nice blue, with a yellow eye. It blooms shortly after the snowdrops in April.

I can’t praise the spring bulbs enough. I consider them essential for my well-being. So order some, or go to your garden center and buy some. You’ll be glad in a few months.

[Homeyer is an organic gardener and the author of four gardening books. Reach him at  [email protected].

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