It's Bulb Planting Time
What you need to know now for a spectacular show next spring
Q: How do I plant spring bulbs?
A: Plant bulbs pointy end up. The easiest way to get them in the ground is to dig a flat-bottom hole 12 to 18 inches wide and drop several bulbs into it at the proper depth.
Space bulbs apart three to four times their diameter. Plant bulbs two to three times their vertical diameter deep. That's about 8 inches deep in well-draining soil, 6 inches in clay soil for large bulbs, such as tulips. Smaller bulbs like crocus and scilla should sit 3 to 5 inches deep.
Don't worry about fertilizing. Just give them a good soaking after planting. Mulching helps reduce the risk of early sprouting and other weather-related problems, but wait until the ground freezes lightly before covering the soil Three inches of mulch is plenty.
Q: When should I plant my bulbs?
A: Spring-flowering bulbs require a cool, dormant period to bloom, so northern gardeners must plant them in fall or early winter. Planting too soon may result in early growth that can be damaged over winter. Wait until soil temperatures cool about 6 weeks before the ground freezes to start planting the bulbs. You can keep planting until the ground freezes.
If summer temperature linger after you've bought your bulbs, store them in the crisper of your refrigerator until cooler temperatures return. Just be sure to keep them away from fruits, some of which emit a gas that's harmful to flowering bulbs.
Q: Does an untimely spring cold snap affect the bulbs that have already come up?
A: Spring bulbs are tougher than you think.
They usually can take what Mother Nature dishes out. Sometimes, however, an untimely cold snap (or unseasonably warm spring) may damage or eliminate the bloom, but rest assured it won't cause long-term harm to the bulb.
There are things you can do to try and save your blossoms. A little frost protection during cold snaps and thorough watering during warm, dry springs go a long way to improve the spring show.
Q: I never got around to planting my bulbs, and now it's early winter. What do I do?
A: Life happens and, regardless of our best efforts, time gets away from all of us. So if your bulbs are still in the bag when winter comes to call, plant them as soon as you can, even if you have to chip into the ground. Bulbs are not dormant, they're alive—and won't last much longer if left unplanted.
If you just can't get to planting in fall, there's still one more late-season trick you can try. Store your bulbs in the refrigerator over winter and plant outdoors in spring as soon as warmer temperatures arrive. Or for a spectacular interior show, plant them in containers for indoor forcing.
Q: What should I do after the flowers fade?
A: The leaves feed the bulb so it can flower next spring. That's why it's important to keep the leaves on the plant until they brown or until 6 weeks have passed since blooming. Clip tulip blooms after they fade so they don't go to seed. You can skip this step for daffodils if you like.
Q: What's the best way to keep squirrels and other critters from digging up bulbs?
A: Try planting daffodils, hyacinths and crown imperials. Most animals don't like the way they taste.
Or place the bulbs in a wide planting hole, cover with 1 inch of soil and lay wire mesh, such as chicken wire, on top. Bend the edges downward and fill the hole the rest of the way with soil. Squirrels won't be able to get to your bulbs, but flowers will grow through the holes just fine.
Repellents or a variety of scare tactics—dog or cat hair spread around the flower bed, aluminum pie tins hanging from twine, or plastic owls—may also help fend off hungry critters. Be sure to vary your tactics, or the pests will catch on.
Q: How can I create the most impact with my bulbs?
A: Here are three simple planting rules you can use to get the most from your bulbs:
Plant in clusters. This concentrates the colors, making the flowers look like bouquets.
Plant shorter bulbs in front. This is a good rule for bulbs that bloom at the same time, such as grape hyacinths and tulips. However, if the low-growing bulbs bloom early and the tall late, plant the taller-growing flowers in front. Their display will camouflage the dying foliage of the smaller bulbs.
Plant a double-decker. Plant small bulbs right on top of large bulbs. If they flower at the same time, it creates a colorful two-tone effect.