As your colorful summer garden fades, you may think you’re finished pinching, pruning, digging and deadheading…but no! There’s no rest for the gardening weary. There’s just one more gardening project for you this fall that will bring you immeasurable joy after a long cold winter. So grab your gear, one last time: It’s time to plant your spring-flowering bulbs.
Beauty in Bulbs
Many of our favorite spring flowers come from “bulbs”—the term used loosely to describe the many different kinds of underground structures that create such plants: bulbs, corms, rhizomes, tubers and tuberous roots. Bulbs are unique because their specialized structure relies on time underground to build their energy stores to push fabulous flora and luscious blooms up through your garden year after year. While there are basically two types of bulbs—tender and hardy—that bloom at various times throughout the year, fall is the time to plant hardy spring-flowering bulbs like daffodil, crocus, hyacinth and tulip. Hardy bulbs, so called for their ability to withstand cold temperatures, actually need time in the cold ground before it freezes to start their “biological clock” and get growing, unlike tender bulbs, which need to be dug up and stored during cold winter months.
Experts suggest that you can plant hardy bulbs through the fall as long as the ground is soft enough to dig; however, for best results, they should be in the ground by mid-November to ensure enough time for the roots to grow. You also don’t want to plant them too early in our area (USDA Zone 7); Virginia is known for some lovely warm fall days, so if you plant too early, your bulbs may begin to sprout too soon and waste precious energy they’ll need come spring to produce beautiful blooms.
Planting bulbs is easy. When choosing your location, take into consideration that most prefer full sun—meaning around five to six hours of direct sunlight. Keep in mind, though, that because most shade trees leaf out much later in the spring, your garden may have plenty of sun in early spring, regardless of the spot you choose. Some bulbs, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit and snowdrops, actually prefer a bit of cool shade, making them a good choice for wooded locations. Whatever the site, make sure it has well-drained soil, for too much moisture will rot the bulbs. According to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, “good drainage is the most important single factor for successful bulb growing.”
Flowering bulbs look best when they bloom in clumps, groups or drifts. Avoid planting your bulbs like sentinels in rows, or one here and there, if you want dramatic results worthy of your efforts. Experts suggest actually tossing the bulbs in the air and planting them where they land for the most natural look. You should also consider the overall design of your garden, situating them near leafy perennials or shrubs whose early spring foliage will mask withering greenery—think hosta, daylily, lamb’s ear or ferns—since the ground around your bulbs will be bare once their season has passed. And while bulb planters are indeed nifty tools, helping gardeners punch out neat and tidy holes, they are made to create one hole at a time—which really might not be ideal in today’s garden. Planting bulbs in groups of six to 12 per hole will achieve a more pleasing look, so you’re better off using a good-old-fashioned garden spade to do your digging.
Plant bulbs with the pointed side up; the pointed end is the stem, and the roots are located on the flatter, wider side. When digging the hole, a good rule of thumb is to dig to a depth of about three times the bulb’s diameter. Experts suggest improving the soil with organic matter and some bone meal or superphosphate, mixing it into the soil at the bottom of the hole at planting time to encourage strong root growth. The Virginia Cooperative Extension suggests that bulbs should not contact fertilizer directly.
If rodents tend to eat your bulbs—or if you’re a first-time bulb planter and you’re not sure exactly who is having dinner in your flower beds—there are a few tricks of the trade you can try. Some gardeners have tried with success sprinkling red pepper in the planting hole. You can also try incorporating a “bulb cage,” which is a cage made of wire or mesh that allows the roots and stems to grow through, but keeps pests out. Though this is a more labor-intensive option, it might be worth the effort. If you decide to try this, make it easy on yourself and use a cage large enough to plant at least a dozen bulbs within one cage. Or stick to daffodils, one flower popular with Virginians but not so much with rodents and other pests.
Replace the soil on top of the bulbs you’ve planted, and water after planting to help them settle in and close any air pockets. Normal rainfall should provide enough moisture throughout the next seasons, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension, but if it’s a particularly dry season, water weekly, soaking the ground thoroughly. After you’ve planted, you’ll want to mark the spot, so you don’t accidentally spear or slice them when they are resting dormant. Expert gardeners Stephanie Cohen and Nancy Ondra suggest this clever tip in The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer: Mark your dormant bulbs with green golf tees. They are easy enough to spot up close, but natural enough to blend in with the environment.
Mulch is another important factor in the bulb planting process, but it should only be applied after the cold weather arrives for good. The ground needs the sunlight after those first weeks of planting to take in sun and begin the photosynthesis process, and you may damage the bulbs if you mulch too soon. Mulch, applied at the right time, prevents alternate freezing and thawing which can also damage your bulbs.
After Spring Has Sprung
There are just a few maintenance tasks to consider that will help keep your bulbs healthy and happy. Experts suggest removing spent flowers from large-flowered bulbs like daffodils to help channel energy into next year’s bounty, but allowing smaller-flowered bulbs like snowdrops to set their seeds and form large drifts for future enjoyment. And when foliage withers, resist the urge to tidy things up too much. The Virginia Cooperative Extension says you can remove the foliage only after it really starts to wither, since green leaves are busy feeding for plant growth next season. Experts also suggest a light fertilizer application just as things are blooming, but take care to keep the fertilizer off the leaves.
With the exception of hybridized tulips, most bulbs spread and multiply underground, forming offsets that grow into blooming plants. Over time, this process tends to overcrowd the original planting and can result in poor performance. If your bulbs are not flowering as well as they used to, this is probably the cause. If you wish to move or divide your flowering bulbs, you should do it during their dormant period, which is usually just after the foliage completely dies back. How to divide the bulb depends upon the type of bulb, so it’s best to check with the pros where you purchase your bulbs. Generally speaking, you want to save and replant the large bulbs, and discard the small offsets.
Our area offers many excellent nurseries and garden centers that sell bulbs; mail-order nurseries are also an excellent option and will often mail your bulbs at just the right time for planting in your zip code.
So don’t put your garden tools to bed for the winter just yet. Give it one last go in those flower beds before you can take the winter off from your hands-on gardening tasks. Come early spring, as those first shoots peek through the cold earth, you’ll be glad you did.
Consider planting these bulbs in your garden this fall for a wash of spring color; this selection tends to do well in our climate:
Daffodils, Tulips, Jonquils, Hyacinths, Crocus, Scilla, Leucojum, Anemone, Chionodoxa, Muscari
Source: Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 426-201
- The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer, Stephanie Cohen and Nancy Ondra, Storey Publishing
- Better Homes and Gardens Complete Guide to Flower Gardening, Meredith Publishing
- The Virginia Cooperative Extension offers a wealth of gardening information for Virginians. Visit them online at www.ext.vt.edu.