Winter hasn’t yet begun, which means it’s time to start thinking about spring. And that means planting bulbs.
Bulb planting is one of the most satisfying of garden tasks, because it’s so unseasonable. This is the time of year when we’re taking things out of our gardens — removing the spent plants, making notes about what worked and what didn’t, and possibly saving some seeds to plant next year. It can all feel a bit deflating, as we contemplate a long winter with little to do but dream of the garden we will grow as soon as the snow is gone.
Planting bulbs, though, is about putting something in the ground now. Sure, what you’re planting won’t show up until spring, but planting bulbs is a tangible act of gardening. It’s a commitment and a promise. You aren’t just contemplating which variety of tomato you’ll grow next year; you’re making decisions and acting on them now.
While bulbs have been for sale in garden centres for weeks — or even months, in some cases — one of the biggest mistakes novice gardeners make is to plant them too early. They will grow no matter when you plant them, but if they go in the ground too soon they may actually begin blooming in fall… and then won’t bloom again next spring.
With the warmer autumns we’ve been seeing, it pays to delay bulb planting as late as possible. Not only does this reduce the risk that they will bloom prematurely, but it also gives critters less chance to dig them up. Nothing is more disheartening than to spend hours planting hundreds of bulbs, only to see them unearthed and eaten by squirrels or skunks night after night.
Late planting is particularly useful for tulips, which seem to be especially tasty as far as rodents are concerned. We’ve planted bulbs right up to freeze up — even breaking through slightly crusty earth to get them in the ground — and had great results.
Wet bulbs are dead bulbs
Gardeners are always thinking about moisture levels, but in summer it usually has more to do with ensuring there’s enough of it. But spring blooming bulbs are typically coming up at a time when the ground is saturated with snow melt and spring rains, so adequate moisture isn’t usually a problem.
What is a problem, though, is ground that doesn’t dry out. If the bulbs are sitting in water for too long, they will simply rot in the ground.
So when you’re considering where to plant your bulbs, think about what the ground is like in spring. Avoid low-lying spots or places with heavy clay soil, and your bulbs will be happier.
Depth and direction
How deep should you plant bulbs? Deep enough but not too deep.
A good rule of thumb is to plant the bulbs about three times as deep as they are high. So a tiny crocus bulb that’s an inch across needs a hole about three inches deep; a two-inch daffodil needs about six inches, and so on. It’s not an exact science, so treat this as a general guideline.
Bulbs also have an up and a down side. Naturally, you want to plant them facing up. With some bulbs that’s obvious – pointy end is usually the top, and flat end is the bottom. But if you’re not certain which is which, just cheat a bit and plant it on its side. The bulb will figure it out and will grow perfectly well.
Mass for maximum impact
Whether you’re putting your bulbs in a garden bed or directly in the lawn, plant them in groups. A bloom here or there will still be pretty, but for maximum impact, you want to have clumps or even large masses of blooms.
Small bulbs can be two or three inches apart, while larger ones can be five or six, but closer is perfectly fine. Some gardeners will dig a larger hole and place a group of bulbs in together, so close that they’re almost touching, then cover them all up together.
If you’re looking for a naturalistic approach — say on a lawn — one common approach is to scatter bulbs on top of the ground and then plant them where they land. You can even do this with a mix of different bulbs, scattering handfuls of different varieties or even different species to give a “hand of God” feel to the garden.
Let them die back in spring
After the blooms are spent in spring, you’ll need to give the plant some more time to grow. Don’t cut them back at all — the leaves are soaking up energy that the bulb will store underground to produce blooms the following spring.
In the garden, it’s often a good idea to plant early-summer blooms alongside your spring bulbs. That way, you’ve got fresh foliage and blooms to hide the fading greenery from your spring bloomers. Alliums and day lilies, for example, are excellent companions for tulips, blooming after the tulips fade and providing enough height to conceal the tulips’ foliage.
If you’re planting bulbs in the lawn, be aware that you’ll need to hold off on cutting the grass until all the foliage has died back. Either that, or you’ll need to plant a whole new crop of bulbs again next fall (which some gardeners do, treating bulbs essentially as annuals).
Forcing in winter
While you’re shopping for bulbs, don’t forget to set a few extras aside for forcing.
This is an incredibly easy technique that lets you enjoy blooms long before spring arrives. You can find more information here.
It takes a bit of planning and advance preparation. But after all, that’s part of what gardening is all about, isn’t it? And whether you’re enjoying blooms in January or in April, the rewards are worth it.