Master Gardeners: Plant bulbs now for spring beauty
One of the joys for many gardeners is to watch new growth emerge in spring after months of cold and snow. If you love flowers, the best way to get early blooms is with bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, crocus and allium. The only catch is that you need to plant these in the fall, usually late September or early October, to give the bulbs time to root before the ground freezes.
Anyone with even a small area of suitable ground can plant bulbs.
Choose a location
You will need sunlight, well-drained soil and in a location where you — and/or others — can see and enjoy them.
Choose type of flowers
As with all plants, it is critical to carefully read the descriptions of the bulbs. There are more than 150 different species of tulips with more than 3,000 varieties. And the differences are not just color and height; they include bloom time, size, type of bloom, whether they naturalize and more.
If you live in an area with deer or voles, you will want to choose flowers that these animals find unappealing — like daffodils and allium. If you want your bulbs to spread new plants every year, plant bulbs that “naturalize,” like daffodils, grape hyacinths and crocus.
Note: Almost all bulbs should return year after year, but how long they do this and how well, depends on the type of flower you choose and how well you care for them.
Soil prep and planting
Plant the bulbs as deep as stated on the package, generally four times the height of the bulbs between the soil surface and the tip of the bulb. Make sure to thoroughly dig the planting area at least three to four inches lower than the root of the bulb and amend the soil with about one-third peat moss or compost. If you have heavy clay soil, you may need to add more. Apply phosphorus at planting time to the root zone of the bulb. This will improve bloom in subsequent years.
Once the area is ready, place the bulbs as desired. They should not be touching. Keep in mind that a clump of the same flower generally packs a bigger visual punch than a mixture of many types.
Also, know that even if you get the same general type of flower, for instance two colors of daffodils, these may not bloom at exactly the same time. Finally, to make the most of all your work with soil prep, you can also overplant — mixing bulbs that are planted deep with those planted shallow (for instance, crocus and tulips as long as you don’t plant them directly on top of each other).
After bulbs are planted, water the bulbs thoroughly to settle the soil. Then add about three inches of mulch to reduce freezing and thawing. You can remove the mulch in spring or gently push it aside as the new shoots emerge.
How to keep the beauty growing for years
First, after the bloom has turned brown, clip it off at the soil level. This directs all the energy the plant was putting into making seeds into making the bulb larger for next year. Similarly, as the foliage dies, let it brown completely before removing it.
If you can’t tolerate the look of the brown leaves, plant the bulbs where taller annuals or perennials are growing in front it them, basically creating a visual wall, or interplant annuals between the bulbs and those plants will soon overshadow the dying foliage.
Second, while you want to make sure the bulbs aren’t planted where they will get too much water and rot, if they are planted in a location with very little moisture, you should water them periodically throughout the summer as needed to make sure they don’t dry out.
Third, add some nitrogen per package instructions before the foliage withers, again to give a boost to increasing the size of the bulb for next year.
For more details about planting bulbs and related information, see the Colorado State University State Extension Fact Sheet about fall-planted bulbs and corms at Extension.ColoState.edu/docs/pubs/garden/07410.pdf.
Gwen Swenson-Hale is a Routt County Master Gardener, class of 2021. She absolutely adores bulbs and can be found every fall adding more to her landscape.
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