10 Spring Bulb Questions

Every year I receive lots of questions regarding tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and other spring flowering bulbs. Most of these questions either come in the spring when these garden beauties are in bloom, or mid-fall when gardeners are trying to get them planted.

This year I thought it would be helpful to get ahead of the game and answer 10 of the most frequently asked questions now, before the fall rush.

1. How can I prevent squirrels and rodents from eating my bulbs?

Planting bulbs in fall for spring bloom can be a bit of a chore, even if the results are well worth the effort. I've come up with a way to make the job a little easier and prevent four legged visitors from disturbing all my hard work.

Bulbs should be planted at a depth that is 3 times their height. For example, if a daffodil bulb is approximately 2 inches tall, dig a hole 6 inches deep. And remember that if you plan to add mulch, factor it in to your planting depth.

Rather than dig individual holes for each bulb I dig out the entire area that I want to plant. I dig it to the required depth of the largest bulb. If I have smaller bulbs I create little mounds of soil for them to sit on that will bring them up to the proper planting depth. I place my bulbs in the dug out area with the pointed end up and the flatter, usually larger end sitting at the bottom of the bed. I then add my bulb food and refill the area with soil. I use a synthetic bulb food because it is less attractive to animals than bone meal, another commonly used fertilizer.

Tulips

This is the point where I add a piece of chicken wire to further prevent squirrels, raccoons and other neighborhood creatures from getting to the bulbs. I simply cut a piece of chicken wire 1 inch larger on each side than the size of bulb bed. I bend the edges to create a shallow box top shape and set the chicken wire on top of my newly planted bulbs. I then push the 1 inch edges down into the soil. To complete the planting I add a 2 to 3 inch layer of mulch. Now this does 3 things. It hides the chicken wire, further insulates the bulbs and gives the beds a finished look.

In the spring when the bulb foliage begins to emerge, I'll remove the chicken wire so that the plants can grow freely.

2. When should I plant spring flowering bulbs?

Spring flowering bulbs can be planted anytime in the fall before the ground freezes. They must be planted in the fall rather than in the spring because they require a long period of cool temperatures to spark their growth process that causes them to flower. In cold climates (zones 1 - 4) this can be done as early as late August or September, while in more temperate areas (zones 4 - 7) planting can be done any time between September and November.

For best results, plant bulbs as soon as possible after you purchase them. Your bulbs need to establish strong root systems, before the frosts of winter set in and the bulbs enter a new cycle in preparation for spring blooming.

3. Why don't tulips come back year after year?

A frequent misconception about tulips is that they don't come back year after year. Actually, tulips are perennial in their native environment in central Asia. In American gardens, tulips don't come back with the same vigor because the foliage dies back too soon, particularly in the South. It's this foliage that reinvigorates the bulbs; without the foliage dying back naturally, there's little chance of the tulip coming back.

In northern gardens, there is a greater chance for tulips to be perennial because the spring is cooler and longer, but even in the north you need to plant a few bulbs each fall to keep the display as effective and beautiful as it can be.

You should also know that there are some varieties that are more reliably perennial than others. Both species tulips and Darwin hybrids are known to return. The darker hued Darwin hybrids do better than the pastel ones.

To encourage tulips to come back plant them in an area that gets good drainage and plant them deep, about 8 inches from the bottom of the bulb to the top of the soil. Fertilize in the fall and spring. After the blooms have faded remove the spent flowers and allow the foliage to die back naturally. This helps the bulbs store up energy for next year's bloom.

In my zone 7 garden I grow the species tulip T. clusiana 'Lady Jane' and it has reappeared in the spring for several years now. But the modern hybrid tulip should be treated as an annual in southern gardens. You have to plant it each year, but the blooms are so beautiful, it is still worthwhile.

4. I live in a warm, zone 9 climate. Can I still plant spring flowering bulbs?

It is a bit more challenging to grow spring flowering bulbs in a warm climate because the winters don't give the bulbs the chilling required to bloom, but, if you take special measures, you can still add their beauty to your garden.

First, with the exception of the daffodils and narcissus, you need to cool your bulbs in the refrigerator for about 6 weeks.

Place bulbs in a ventilated bag (best choices: paper bags, mesh bulb bags, or new open weave vegetable baggies) in a refrigerator at the usual fridge temperature of 40° F to 45° F for a minimum of six to eight weeks. Don't worry if you bought the bulbs early in the season and need to store them for several months before planting: keep them chilling - even up to 12 to 16 weeks if necessary, until it is time to plant.

Remove any fruit (especially apples) in the refrigerator, for the ethylene gas given off by all ripening fruit will kill the flower inside bulbs.

Keep bulbs in the refrigerator until planting. Take them directly from the fridge to your planting site.

Water the garden after planting to help the establish root growth. If you live in a dry area, be sure to water the garden about once a week.

5. How should I store my bulbs until I am ready to plant them?

I often get into a situation where I can't get my bulbs planted as soon as I would like. In such instances I keep the bulbs in a cool, dry place, such as my garage, or basement. Warmth and moisture will signal the bulbs to start growing. I check on them occasionally to be sure they aren't getting moldy or soft and plant them as soon as I can.

6. What should I do with the foliage after the blooms have faded in the spring?

Well if you are dealing with perennial bulbs such as daffodils and want flowers next year you should treat the foliage with respect. It actually restores the bulb's energy through photosynthesis and helps the bulb prepare for blooming next year, so don't cut it back. It's okay to remove the spent flower but be sure to leave the stem intact.

After a while the foliage may begin to look a little rough but keep it in place for at least 8 weeks after the flower fades or until the foliage withers and dies back.

One solution to camouflaging the fading foliage is to over plant your bulbs with cool season annuals such as pansies or even perennials, which will emerge and begin to gain height about the time the foliage is beginning to appear unsightly.

This is also an excellent time to feed your bulbs. I just use about a tablespoon or so of a well balanced fertilizer like 20-20-20 or triple 13 and sprinkle it around the base of the plants.

7. When can I transplant daffodils?

If you have daffodils that are in need of relocating, spring is a good time to transplant them. Because the foliage is visible you will have no trouble seeing them in the ground. Just remember the name of the game here is to keep the leaves green as long as possible to recharge the bulb for next year's flower. For the best results, wait about 8 weeks after the blooms have faded to move your daffodils. When you do move them, take care not to do damage to the bulb, and make sure that the bulb and foliage stay intact.

8. Are there any deer resistant spring flowering bulbs?

Believe it or not there are a few plants that deer tend to pass by. I've had the most success with daffodils, but alliums, crocus, chinodoxa, scilla, grape hyacinths and snow drops are all supposed to be deer resistant. But what I've found is that if deer get hungry enough, they'll eat anything, even these varieties. About the only full proof system is a very tall fence or a dog trained to keep deer away.

9. What do recommend planting in addition to the standard tulips and daffodils?

I must confess that the bulbs I plant the most of are tulips. I guess I just love the classic bloom and wide range of colors available. However, for variety there are some other, less typical bulbs that I plant every year as well.

Allium schubertii - Large, spidery blooms comprised of purple star-shaped florets. These are great planted in drifts and make an elegant statement as a single cut flower in a vase.

Anemone blanda - I have to say that I don't actually grow this bulb, but have always appreciated its simple daisy-like bloom. They are great for forcing to enjoy indoors. I like the 'Blue Shades' variety because, well, I like blue.

Arum italicum - This is really a three season plant. Good for gardens in zones 5 - 9, it produces mottled arrow shaped foliage in the winter, chartreuse 'Jack-in-the-pulpit' like blooms in the spring and bright red berries in summer.

Camassia leichtlinii 'Blue Danube' - This North American native plant produces tall spikes of blue star shaped flowers in late spring or early summer.

Eremurus -The plume shaped blooms are similar to a foxtail giving it the common name of foxtail lily. The stature of this plant makes a statement. Depending on the variety it can grow up to 7 feet tall.

Leucojum aestivum 'Gravetye Giant' - The white bell-shaped flowers of this plant are edged with a chartreuse green. I like this variety because the blooms are larger than other leucojums.

10. What bulbs are good for forcing to enjoy indoors?

The easiest spring flowering bulbs for forcing are amaryllis, paperwhites, hyacinths, muscari and large flowering crocus. Other bulbs that can be forced but may require a little more attention are tulips, miniature daffodils, lily-of-the-valley and freesias.

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