If you want the beauty and joy of colorful tulip and daffodil flowers in your yard next spring, now is the time to start the process. Once planted these hardy bulbs can liven your spring garden for years to come -- usually many years in the case of daffodils; generally several seasons in the case of many tulips.
Tulips and daffodils bulbs can be planted just about anywhere in the country. However, they need to experience a certain amount of cold in order to bloom, which happens naturally in cold winter areas. But if you garden where winters are mild and nature won't provide enough of a chill, you'll need to plant bulbs that have experienced an artificial winter of sorts. The easiest course is to buy bulbs that have been pre-chilled. You can also do the chilling yourself by placing bulbs in a refrigerator, cool basement, or other spot where they can be kept at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 12 weeks before planting. You'll also need to treat the bulbs as annuals (by far the easiest strategy), discarding them after they've finished blooming, or to dig them up after they've died back, store them over the summer, and chill them again for re-planting the following fall.
Start by deciding where you want to plant the bulbs and how many you have room for. You'll want to choose areas with well-drained soil that receive at least a half day of sun. Bulbs make the most striking show when planted in large drifts instead of rows. For a long lasting show, include early-flowering, mid-season, and late-flowering varieties in your chosen colors. For larger beds, you might want to consider planting the earlier flowering bulbs towards the front and later flowering ones moving towards the back. Then when the earlier flowering ones have completed their show in the spring you can plant annuals among the bulbs to continue color in those areas.
For the best selection, purchase bulbs as soon as you see them in the stores. If you later decide you have extra room, take advantage of end-of-the season specials. Generally, the bigger the bulb, the better the flower. Look for firm bulbs with no soft or discolored spots. A loose or partially removed papery cover on true bulbs is not an indication of damage to the bulb itself.
Once you've purchased your bulbs you don't need to be in a rush to plant them. Keep them in a cool, dry place until you're ready to plant. Store them in paper or mesh bags, not plastic. You want to get them in before the ground freezes, but not so early that they put out any top growth. A few weeks before the usual first stretch of extended freezing weather is ideal.
If you are planting in heavy clay soil, amend it first with liberal additions of sphagnum peat moss or compost to improve drainage and aeration. If you are planting for the long-term, add bulb booster fertilizer according to the directions on the label. The fertilizer won't affect next year's blooms, but it will provide food to the bulbs for the following years' shows. Place the bulb food in the planting hole a few inches below the depth at which you'll place the bulb so there is some soil between the fertilizer and the bulb.
As a general rule, bulbs should be planted at a depth two to three times the diameter of the bulb. Deep planting may discourage damage from animals like squirrels and voles that like to feast on tulips (daffodils are usually pest-proof), but planting too deep may encourage flowering before the stems have completely emerged from the ground. If burrowing animals are a problem, make a chicken wire cage on three sides of the bulbs as you plant them, leaving the top side open. Then lay a piece of chicken wire on top of the soil after the bulbs are planted until the ground is frozen.
Set bulbs in their planting holes with the pointed end up. Follow the recommended spacing for each variety. Avoid crowding, as it forces plants to compete for water and nutrients, restricts air movement around the foliage, and can slow, rather than speed, the development of a full flower bed.
By following the above steps you can ensure beautiful spring splashes of color for years to come.
Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.