Originally Published: September 16, 2016 6 a.m.
It’s nearly that time of year when gardeners think of spring — of planting bulbs that are going to bloom then.
Bulbs are “pre-packaged” flowers, so a green thumb isn’t necessary to get those first season’s blossoms. Still, a few tips for buying and planting bulbs can make for a better show next spring and beyond.
BIGGER IS BETTER
The bigger the bulbs, the bigger next spring’s flowers.
Bulbs are usually sold as small, medium or top size, the measurement taken around the circumference where the bulb is fattest. Which measurements go with which size depends on the kind of bulb. Small tulips are 10 to 11 centimeters around, medium ones 11 to 12 centimeters, and anything larger is top size.
Naturally smaller bulbs include certain tulips, such as the charming waterlily tulip, as well as grape hyacinth, crocus and snow drop.
MORE IS BETTER
Over time, with good care, smaller bulbs will grow into larger ones, whose show will match that of the initially fatter bulbs. One way to compensate for smaller flowers would be to plant more of them, putting your money into buying more rather than fatter bulbs. Which brings us to ...
More is better, for any kind of bulb. Forget about planting tulips in a single file ready to march like soldiers down the edge of your front path. Instead, plan for big dollops of color, massing bulbs in circular groups or, for bolder visual effect from fewer bulbs, triangular groupings with an apex directed to your vantage point.
Even though this coming spring’s flowers are already packaged inside bulbs, the more sunlight the plants bask in, the better will be the show they put on in years to come. The spot where you plant bulbs doesn’t have to be bathed in sunlight all season — only until the bulbs’ leaves disappear. Those leaves disappear, fortuitously, at about the same time that emerging leaves of deciduous trees finally knit together to create cool shade.
Another consideration in siting spring bulbs is soil drainage; most abhor wet feet. The original home of tulips, narcissus, crocuses, and many other popular spring bulbs are the mountainsides of western Asia, on ground that is parched all summer. Holland is a good place to raise bulbs commercially because the long, cool, moist springs delay dormancy. In the long time before the bulbs’ leaves finally die back, the greenery has plenty of time to fuel the following season’s flower buds.
What about fertilizer? The traditional recommendation is to put bone meal into the bottom of the planting hole. Actually, a bulb does not need fertilizer to flower well its first season, only to flower well in subsequent seasons. What these bulbs really need is any balanced fertilizer — including compost, the Cadillac of fertilizers — spread on the ground right after planting this fall or even in spring. Bone meal is not a particularly well balanced fertilizer.
Good growing conditions will get these bulbs multiplying, with younger bulbs budding off the mother bulb. Overcrowded bulbs won’t flower well, so they’ll eventually need to be dug up; a good time is when the foliage is dying down. They can then be replanted with sufficient elbow room.
And unless your yard is free of deer, plant types of bulbs that deer generally don’t like, such as ornamental onions, glory-of-the-snow, winter aconite, fritillaria, snowdrop, hyacinth, snowflake, squill and narcissus.