By Melanie Mathieson
The Gardening Guru
Although spring is many months away, this is the time of year that gardeners must think ahead to spring if they want to be rewarded with the first flowers of the season from bulbs that are planted in the fall.
Spring flowering bulbs consist of many species, such as tulips, hyacinths, snowdrops, daffodils, crocus, and even irises. These bulbs must endure a period of cold (winter season) while in the ground in order to activate their growth pattern when the soil warms.
Many gardeners do not plant bulbs because they think it is difficult and requires a lot of work, but there are only a few easy steps for the successful planting of spring bulbs—and the results are very rewarding.
Follow these guidelines and you will have a garden full of spring blooms:
I recommend buying bulbs from your local nursery or from a reputable mail-order supplier (most of the available bulbs come from Holland).
Just beware of those bargain bags of bulbs from the large chain retailers as these are the lower-grade ones that are packaged in bulk and sold for less money. These bulbs often are smaller than ones of a higher grade (sold at the nursery or mail-order catalogue), they can be mouldy or harbour diseases, and may or may not bloom in the spring.
If they do actually bloom, the flowers will be small and of low quality, and unable to renew themselves for the next spring season.
So how do you avoid this problem? At nurseries or mail-order catalogues, the bulbs are of a higher grade. If you are able to select the bulbs yourself, I always say pick the ones that look good enough to eat—just like when you buy fresh produce at the market (after all, you wouldn’t buy a mouldy onion or a rotten plum).
Pick large and firm bulbs with a blemish-free surface. Make sure their base where the roots come out is healthy-looking and, even better, if there are some traces of roots showing.
Almost all spring flowering bulbs will grow in our region. I have had the greatest success with daffodils which come in many colours and varieties now. In fact, I only have one variety of yellow ones in my garden.
The depth of planting depends on the size of the bulb. Measure the height of your bulb and times that number by three (so if you have a tulip bulb that is two inches high, you would plant it six inches deep).
A little deeper is okay, but not too deep or they will not find the surface in the spring. Planting too shallow can cause the bulbs to freeze too solid, leading to rot in the spring.
Some people plant their bulbs in rows while others in a random fashion. I prefer to plant all of my flowers in a more natural fashion, so I plant them in clumps.
The fastest way to do this is to dig a hole as deep as needed for the bulbs and as big around as you need to hold all of them. Place the bulbs in the bottom of the hole, making sure the roots are facing down (flat dimple part–similar to an onion) and the top of the bulb (hooded part) is facing upright, and then cover completely with soil.
Bulbs should be spaced two times the width apart from each other in order to give them some growing space.
And voila, you are done.
If you prefer to plant in straight rows, follow this same technique by digging trenches in the same manner (others plant in individual holes using a bulb planter or a soil drill bit but I find this too time-consuming and prefer digging one larger hole and mass planting).
It is important to add fertilizer to the planting hole for the bulb as they do not have any green leaves to supply nutrients to themselves until they reach above the soil next spring. Bulbs will set out their roots this season before the ground freezes, so the better root system they develop, the better the plant will be next spring.
What type of fertilizer do you use? There are many types of fertilizer you can use for bulbs, but what they all have in common is a high middle number (P–phosphorus ) to ensure good root and flower production.
Many companies market a fertilizer called Bulb Booster (or similar names) or you also can use bone meal or blood meal, but no need to buy a new fertilizer if you have some on hand (tomato food, transplant fertilizer, etc.) from other plantings.
Only keep in mind that you should use a granular or powdered fertilizer you add directly to the soil and do not mix with water (this allows the nutrients to stay with the bulb as it is needed).
As long as the highest number is the middle number in your fertilizer, it is okay to use it with your bulbs.
•Other tips to remember
1. As I said, make sure your bulbs are good enough to eat. The squirrels and raccoons will thank you for this as they like to eat bulbs, with the exception of daffodils as they are poisonous, but do not let this prevent you from enjoying bulbs.
Blood meal will deter squirrels from digging up your bulbs, but will attract skunks and raccoons as it smells like rotten meat. Use this if squirrels and chipmunks are your only garden pest. If not, then use the red pepper flake hint from a previous column.
Sprinkle red pepper flakes liberally over your newly-planted areas. This will burn their paws and keep them away (remember to replenish after a rain or the first early snows). Or you can cover your planted area with chicken wire and secure with soil, this will prevent all pests from digging down to your bulbs and the plants will grow right through the holes in the wire.
2. All bulbs can be planted just until the ground freezes, although it is best to plant irises and daffodils in late August or early September if you can to allow for maximum root growth before freeze-up.
3. Species of bulbs can be inter-mixed amongst each other, as well as different varieties of the same species. If you have bulbs of varying sizes in height, dig your hole the right depth for the largest bulb, fertilize, plant the bulb, add some soil to the depth of the next largest bulb, add more fertilizer, plant the bulb, cover with soil, etc.
This layered effect can make for some interesting and generous flower displays come spring (make as many layers as you would like).
4. Do not be afraid to try new varieties. All of my daffodils are unusual and they attract the most attention in my garden. New varieties of all species come out every year, so take a chance on something new!
5. When selecting bulbs, be aware that they can bloom at all different times throughout the spring. Early bulbs are the first of the season where late bulbs will bloom sometime in early June.
Bearded irises, for instance, are June bloomers while Dutch irises bloom as soon as the snow is gone (one year they even bloomed under the snow).
Plan your garden and plantings according to their bloom times.
Winter will be so much more bearable this year when you can hardly wait to see the results of your fall plantings of bulbs.