Notes from the Garden: Fall Is the Time to Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs

As fall arrives, it is time to plant spring-flowering bulbs. I can’t imagine a flower garden without spring bulbs. Wherever you decide to plant them—along walkways, meadows, beds, borders or in containers—flower bulbs are fabulous in large drifts and stunning bouquets.

They may naturalize for years when left undisturbed in a good spot. As a rule bulbs are not true perennials; most gardeners replant flower bulbs every fall. Like many annuals, bulbs provide the most broad and intense range of color in spring gardens, and it is fun to change the theme and design every year. Keep the look and feel of your garden fresh and alive. Flower bulbs are easy to plant, yield extremely showy, long lasting spring blooms and are relatively inexpensive. Before planting, inspect the health and firmness of your bulbs, and discard any that are soft or have different colorations or mildew spots.

To achieve the best performance of the bulbs, plant them in neutral PH, well draining soil with a minimum of 6 hours of daily sunlight. Deadhead the flowers when they start to die back and then allow the foliage to die back naturally. Top-dress the bed with a 4-10-6 granular organic fertilizer in the fall and early spring.

Never add any fertilizer to the bottom of each planting. The roots grow from the bottom of the bulb, and if the bulb is sitting on fertilizer, root development can be impeded.

Try to avoid planting flower bulbs along driveways and roads. Keep them away from areas in which snow drifts containing ice-melt solutions can accumulate over the winter. If planting bulbs on a hillside, plant them to the proper depth and tamp down the soil so water cannot collect. Flower bulbs must be planted or transplanted in the fall when the ground has chilled to around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. They prefer being installed well before a serious deep freeze so they can set down roots.

After the ground freezes, apply no more than 2 inches of mulch to provide protection from inconsistent snow coverage. Never fertilize with horse manure or any other acidic amendment. Failure to bloom can be caused by planting too deep, in too much shade, with poor water drainage, an overcrowded planting, or a late spring killing frost.

Store flower bulbs indoors in a dark spot with absolutely no water and good ventilation. In late October bring them out, cut off the dead foliage, and replant them. Plant a small number of bulbs with a bulb planter. Sink the tool straight down into the soil. To plant a full bed, border or meadow, first dig a trench and then place bulbs facing upwards in the trench according to your design. Replace and tamp down the soil until firm. Don’t hesitate to mass together a single variety.

Flower bulbs do everything in response to temperature, sunlight and site conditions. In event of a mild winter or a warmer than usual spring, flower bulbs may bloom early. New bulb plantings may bloom as much as two weeks later than an established mature planting. Deadhead flowers to prevent seed pod formation. Outdoor planting quantities for large fall planting: plant four bulbs per square foot. For small bulbs, plant nine bulbs per square foot.

Forcing bulbs: Pot them up shoulder to shoulder in neutral PH potting soil in a well draining pot. Chill the pot in a consistently dark place for 12 weeks. Water the pot lightly once a week. At the end of this time put the pot in a cool spot with filtered sunlight. Move the pot to a location with better sunlight until the buds emerge, then place in full sunlight at 50–65 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the flower buds color up, the pot may be placed anywhere for enjoyment. The cooler the ambient temperature, the longer the flowers thrive.

Deer resistant bulbs include alium, anemone blanda, canassia, crocus, Dutch iris, fritiliaria, hyacinth, muscari, narcissi, scilla, and peonies.

A good plan will make the planting much easier. To decide what kind of bulbs should be used, it’s important to have in mind what kind of look is desired—a natural field or a classic or a formal one.

Daffodils and Narcissus, when planted in different colors and heights in meadows, paths or lawns, give a very “field” look. Also, some bulbs are appropriate for areas with a dense population of deer, because deer don’t usually eat some kind of bulb, even though reports of the opposite have been made.

Spring blooming bulbs planted in the perennial bed will flower and mature before most perennials push up through the soil. The large variety of daffodils looks best in the corners of beds. The small varieties in the 8-inch range, such as “Jetfire” and “Foundling,” can link the front and back of the bed. Medium-sized tulips are perfect for formal beds that call for symmetrical perfection.

Choose 1 or 2 varieties and plant them en masse to create an elegant sweep of bloom such as “Orange Wonder” or “Yellow Present.” You can handle them informally for cheerful splashes of color by planting them in groups of a dozen bulbs in a perennial border.

When planting larger bulbs, such as lilies, tulips, or hyacinths, plan to include small ones at the same time. Remember, some aggressive perennials, such as Lysmaschia or Physostegia, do not make good companions for bulbs. Tap rooted plants, such as poppies or peonies make excellent bulb neighbors since their roots go straight down and rarely forage in the top few inches of surrounding soil. Perennials with shallow roots make the ideal companion for any bulbs; especially the small ones since sprouting bulbs can easily penetrate their roots. The advantage to planting with other plants is that the bulbs show more beautifully against a foliage backdrop rather than bare soil, and there’s no gaping hole when the bulbs go dormant.

Any garden can hold many more bulbs than most people would think possible. I’m continually finding and creating more room. Whatever the size of your garden, whether you have the space to naturalize with large bulbs or are limited to a miniature meadow of spring bulbs by a stone wall, you should find a way to use flowering bulbs. A modest number of bulbs, artfully placed, can make as strong a statement and clear contribution to your landscape.

Landscape designer, writer and lecturer Frederico Azevedo is the founder of Unlimited Earth Care, Inc., providing high quality landscape design and maintenance to the Hamptons for over 23 years. For more information call 631-725-7551, or visit unlimitedearthcare.com.

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