It's time to start bulbs now for spring beauty

It takes a true gardener to envision in autumn what a garden space is going to look like come spring. For some folks it is difficult to imagine the mixture of colors, textures, heights, balance and flower size. I believe this is the main reason the planting of spring-blooming bulbs is considered to be difficult. If you haven't tried these flowering gems, or have had problems in the past, let me share years of bulb experience that will make it so simple to add flowering bulbs to your garden that you'll have a whole new perspective on gardening with bulbs.

Coming into the gardening industry from a banking and credit background, I had never heard the terms "rhizomes, corms, or tubers." I learned that, like "bulbs," these also are planted by root to produce the most stunning flowers imaginable. As you regular readers know, I am all for keeping gardening simple; therefore, in my jargon I refer to all of these roots as "bulbs."

Soon garden centers, drugstores, hardware, grocery and box stores will be filling their display shelves with bulbs. Bulbs for sale now are the only perennially blooming bulbs. The brightly colored packages of bulbs available in spring are meant to bloom that summer only.

Bigger makes all the difference when it comes to bulbs. Choose the largest, longest, thickest bulbs from your selection of choice. The flowers of bulbs will be proportional to the size of the bulbs. The larger the bulb is, the larger the bloom. This is a good reason to buy your fall bulbs as soon as possible. Don't wait until "in the know" experienced gardeners have scooped the best bulbs up.

After size, the next consideration is bulb health. Look for bulbs without blemishes, scars or signs of mold. Generally, they should have their skins or "tunics" intact, but some flaking or splitting is normal. Pick up the bulbs you're buying and give each of them a squeeze. Each bulb should have a weight appropriate to its size and should feel firm. Lightweight bulbs probably have dried out in storage; mushy bulbs are rotted. In general, avoid bulbs that have begun to sprout; they may have been stored too moist or for too long. Such bulbs may settle in and perform just fine, but don't take the risk unless the price makes them irresistible.

Buy bulbs as soon as they are available and look for the best grade possible. Hold them in the garage or another dark, cool place until October. If planted now, i.e. too early, bulbs can pop up this fall thinking it is already spring, only to be frozen back during winter. Wait until you see the fall colors of the season before planting your spring bulbs. The planting depth should be three to five times the height of the bulb. In heavy clay soil, plant them on the shallower side. This is correct for every bulb except iris. I have a printed handout specifically about irises; ask for it the next time you visit the garden center.

To people, crocus and tulip bulbs are famous for their beauty, but gophers and javalina think of them as garden candy. A few easy steps can obstruct these bulb varieties from foraging pests, protecting them to bloom for human enjoyment. To guard against burrowing invaders, bury a five-gallon grower's pot with the rim flush to soil level. Plant bulbs in this mini-environment; underground rodents are hard pressed to eat through the plastic.

To keep javalina and rodents from digging up the bulbs from above ground, plant bulbs normally and cover them with 1-inch metal hardware cloth. Secure this simple but effective barrier with wire pins, bricks or rocks and enjoy the flowers as they emerge through the mesh.

Some bulbs don't need protection because critters just don't like the taste of them. Daffodil, iris and hyacinth bulbs are the most common varieties that don't make varmints' lists of favorite treats. Try these first if you live in a mammal-infested area.

The soil around bulbs needs to drain well, so if you need to add something to loosen the soil use composted mulch. Blend it into the soil at a one-third mulch-to-soil ratio. Do not use manure; it will promote rotting during wet winters.

I don't know about you, but sometimes I find it difficult to figure which end is up on some bulbs. I just guess as best I can and if in doubt I plant them sideways. No kidding. I've found that it doesn't seem to matter; bulbs find a way to emerge and bloom right side up. Add a little bone meal at the bottom of each hole; then scatter a little soil over the bone meal and set the bulb. The bone meal noticeably increases the size of blooms. Cover with soil and your bulbs are in place for their winter nap.

While the soil is loosened, you might like to plant some flowers over your bulbs. The best companion plants with bulbs are pansies and mums. Both remain green during cold months and contribute to an exceptional effect as the daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, and crocuses bloom up around them creating a spring spectacle you are sure to enjoy.

Water bulbs as you would other flowerbeds and expect really early bulbs to sprout from the earth starting in January. Daffodils and crocuses begin their announcement of spring sometime in February. For more on the best garden techniques with bulbs stop in and visit with my knowledgeable staff and me.

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona Certified Nursery Professional and Master Gardener.