The secret to the ultimate spring garden:
Garden center employees call it “the 100 days of hell”. With the first warm weekend of the year, it starts. People possessed by an almost primal spring-time frenzy frantically load trays of plants into their cars. “Spring is finally here! It’s time to fill our gardens with color!” Here’s a secret though: the gardens with the best spring displays were planted last fall. Come spring time all there is to do is find a comfortable place in the emerging garden to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee. We don’t want this to be a secret anymore. Below is everything you need to know to make planting bulbs a staple part of your fall routine.
What makes bulbs easy?
Small, brown and no sign of life? Don’t be fooled!
Inside the bulb, the flower, stem and leaves are already formed and packed in alongside stored energy. The bulb is prepared and fueled up for its most important goal: to produce a flower! Because of their self-contained design and robust determination, bulbs are some of the most forgiving things you can plant.
When planted in the fall they begin to establish roots. The spring sun hitting the soil gives the signal to the plant to emerge and show off the bloom that has been hiding inside the bulb for months. This means that bulbs have a knack for overcoming poor conditions; still, there are a few things to consider to set your bulbs up for success. Read on!
First, take some time to select and prepare the planting site. You’ll want to take a look at the type and quality of the soil and the sun exposure.
Bulbs do well in both full sun and partial shade. However, if you have the option, give them full sun. Remember that because many fall-planted bulbs bloom while trees are still barren, areas of your garden that are shaded by mid-summer may be the perfect place to grow early blooming bulbs.
Bulbs prefer well draining, fertile soil. To achieve this, consider mixing organic matter like compost or well rotted manure into the planting area. This is also a great time to mix some slow release fertilizer into your soil. Store-bought fertilizer will be labeled with a three number code that corresponds to the proportion of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) it contains. Choose a well balanced fertilizer with a N-P-K code of 10-10-10, 12-12-12 or 10-15-10. For more advice on preparing your soil read this article.
Ideally, bulbs should be planted 4 to 6 weeks before your soil freezes. This gives them some time to develop roots before winter sets in. If you plant them too early, the bulbs can become “confused” because of the warm ground and try to sprout. Wait too long and the ground will be unworkable and the bulbs will not have time to establish. (Having said that, if you have them, plant them. Bulbs are resilient and will do their best to bloom even if planted “too late”.)
When it’s time to plant, we recommend you forgo the single bulb planter or hand trowel and dig the whole planting area to the correct depth for the type of bulbs you are planting. Arrange the bulbs with pointy ends correctly spaced out. It may be tempting to crowd the bulbs to create a fuller display but this will prevent the bulbs from putting on their best show. Cover the bulbs with soil and give them a good watering. Watering settles the soil around the bulbs and encourages them to start developing roots. You don’t need to water them again until spring.
That’s it, you’re done!
- If you can’t plant your bulbs right away, make sure that they remain cool and well ventilated, they might look dormant but they can actually suffocate (inside a plastic bag, for example).
- If you’ve got ‘em, plant ‘em. Bulbs are resilient and will do their best to bloom even if planted “too late”.
Growing and Caring for Bulbs:
To guarantee spectacular blooms, the perfect time to apply a second serving of fertilizer (applying the first when you prepare your soil) is when the bulbs emerge from the ground. You can use the same slow-release fertilizer you used in the fall or any balanced or lower nitrogen fertilizer (look for N-P-K numbers like 10-10-10, 10-15-10 or 3-5-3). Apply according to the instructions and water in. Fertilizing in spring is particularly important for perennial bulbs like narcissus.
Most fall planted bulbs are native to alpine regions with baking summers and super well-draining rocky soil. It is far easier to over-water your bulbs than to under-water them. Standing water or consistently damp soil can cause the bulbs to rot and encourage diseases to develop. Bulbs planted in the ground may not need any supplemental watering unless you are experiencing unusual dry spells between rain showers. If your bulbs are planted in containers they will dry out faster and will likely need some extra water from you. For more general advice about best watering practices, see this article .
Tip: Daffodils can handle and prefer slightly damper conditions than other fall-planted bulbs.
Many bulb varieties are naturally distasteful to deer and rodents alike, unfortunately not all of them are.
In fall, squirrels are frantically stockpiling food. How nice of you to put out a buffet! To prevent your bulbs from being dug-up, you can bury a layer of wire mesh between your bulbs and the surface. If you have very persistent squirrels or if voles are an issue, you can plant your bulbs in cages. Either make your own from wire mesh or buy them especially made for the job. Make sure the mesh is large enough for future shoots to grow through.
When your bulbs make it through the winter, they are not in the clear yet. Unfortunately, deer and rabbits think tender spring buds are delicious. Luckily, it is possible to deter these pests. To avoid disappointment, check out our advice.
For us, creating a garden is about doing something positive with and in nature. With that in mind, we encourage you to use humane and environmentally conscious methods to deter pests.
Are bulbs perennial?
Fall bulbs are typically all grouped under the umbrella of “perennial” but what this really means varies.
Narcissus, crocus, alliums (especially) and hyacinths (to a slightly lesser extent) are all strong naturalizers. That means that not only do they come back year after year but, with the proper care, they multiply and spread.
Tulips are also technically perennials but the story here is a bit more complex. With the vast majority of tulip varieties, the size and quality of the bloom will diminish each year. Some other varieties struggle to come back at all. You may hear that yet other varieties, like Queen of Night, are in-fact reliable perennials.
While some gardeners manage to get repeat showings, we recommend that you treat all of your tulips as annuals. Here is our argument:
- The bloom quality will diminish. If you want large, robust blooms next year, you have to prevent your tulips from blooming this year. We assume that this would defeat the purpose of planting them.
- To give them a good chance of returning, it is essential that you don’t cut back the foliage until it dies back naturally. Tulip foliage looks … well, not great as it slowly turns brown and withers. We prefer to pull up our tulips after they have bloomed (say thank you and send them to the compost pile) and then fill in the gap with some other annuals.
- Leaving tulips in the ground puts them at greater risk for developing fungus and disease. Once these have established themselves in your soil they can linger for years putting future tulips at risk.
If all this really breaks your heart and you want to try for repeat blooms anyway, here are some tips to give your tulips their best shot at coming back next year:
- Do dead-head the tulips (cut off the flowers) after they have bloomed
- Do not cut back the foliage until it has turned brown
If you have a less-manicured area in your garden, it could be an ideal place to transplant your spent tulips. Scattered through long grass or along the edge of an un-manicured wooded area, the humble, smaller year two blooms can look really wonderful.
You can transplant them, roots and all, immediately after they have finished blooming or first wait for their foliage to die back. At that point, dig the bulbs up and trim away the foliage and the roots and split the divided bulb into individual bulbs. You can then transplant them to their new spot immediately or keep them in a paper bag in a cool, dry, dark place to be planted in the fall.
About Bulbs: Where do they come from?
A product of Holland
Bulb cultivation has been a staple of Dutch agriculture since the 16th century. Today, getting you the highest quality bulbs is a matter of national and personal pride for the farmers that grow them. The sandy, fertile soil and temperate climate combined with generations of expertise come together to create the ideal growing conditions for the region’s best export.
The bag of bulbs you plant in your garden this year were planted in a field in Holland one year ago. They bloomed this past spring to create the famous patchwork quilt that blankets the region in color each year. The bulbs mature through the spring and Summer growing season in open fields carefully managed according to Holland’s strict environmental regulations. During this time the bulbs propagate new bulblets below the soil and prepare for next year’s show. The following year’s flower is actually fully formed inside the bulb at this time! Your bulbs were harvested for you this past summer. The bulbs were then sorted, cleaned and dried. The highest quality bulbs were selected, packaged and sent to you. While the smallest bulbs and the bulblets that formed this year will return to the field in the fall to mature some more.