Coloring the Garden With Spring Bulbs

By William Moss

Tarda Tulip

There's nothing like drifts of vivid flowers to awaken the senses in spring! Many years ago when I was a complete novice, the success I had with a couple bags of 'February Gold' daffodils gave me confidence and propelled me down the gardener's path. Bulbs provide a foolproof floral display that brightens gardens, feeds the drowsy queen bumblebees, and lifts the spirits. The bulbs we plant in fall are dormant perennials, and the cool, moist autumn soil awakens them from their dormancy so they can begin growing roots in preparation for the spring show.

When buying bulbs, select those that are fresh and firm, not brittle or rotted or moldy. If you start with healthy plants, you are halfway down the road to success. All that's left is proper placement and planting.

Choose a site where the bulbs will receive at least part sun throughout the spring. They look beautiful growing beneath deciduous trees, and they will receive ample sunlight before the trees leaf out. Areas of constant shade, like the north side of a building, will not work as well because the plants need sun to make food for future flowers. Also choose a spot with good drainage or the bulbs may rot. Amend heavy clay soils with organic matter or build up a raised bed or berm to plant in.

The ideal planting depth depends on the size of the bulb. The general rule is to plant three times as deep as the bulb is wide. That means about 4 to 6 inches deep for small bulbs like snowdrops, crocuses, and grape hyacinths, and about 8 inches deep for large bulbs like hybrid tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. Most bulb packages give a recommended spacing but I suggest urban gardeners plant bulbs closer together but not touching to get maximum impact.

Planted en masse, the exuberant colors of spring bulbs make a grand statement, so I prefer to use a shovel and make a wide hole for planting many bulbs at once. I never use a bulb planting tool because I plant my bulbs by the dozens. Buy fewer types of bulbs in large quantities as opposed to many types of bulbs in fewer numbers. For example, instead of buying 20 bulbs each of five different lily-flowered tulips, buy 100 'West Point' tulips for a dazzling display.

Spring bulbs are especially stunning when combined with other spring flowers. Place them under crab apple trees, amidst wildflowers, and alongside spring annuals for incredible combinations.

Altai Lily

Bulbs in Containers

Gardeners in warm regions can plant bulbs in containers and leave them outside year-round. For those of us in cold climates with patios and balconies, growing spring-blooming bulbs in containers is more challenging. The environmental conditions are similar to a mountainside, with limited soil, sharp drainage, extreme cold, wide fluctuations in day and night temperatures (which leads to frequent thawing and freezing), and exposure to bitter, desiccating winds. By comparison, planting in the ground is a cakewalk.

I have had success with growing many types of alpine bulbs in pots. However, last year a thaw in January followed by a long string of below-zero temperatures killed scores of crocuses, scillas, grape hyacinths, hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, calochortus, and alliums in my patio containers. The stalwarts were Tulipa tarda, Altai lilies, and Asiatic lilies. The early summer-blooming Asiatic lilies have been rock hardy on my Chicago balcony for years. I'll test the other two again this year.

Cold-weather gardeners with balconies would have better luck potting up the bulbs and storing them in a garage, basement, or in-ground trench during the harshest winter months. Or set the pots of bulbs inside larger weather-proof containers and insulate the space in between with straw, Styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, or another insulating material. The other option for urbanites is to buy blooming potted bulbs in the spring and set them in containers with other spring-blooming plants.

With a little effort this fall, you'll be greeted with cheerful blossoms in the spring. Those bright flowers will chase away Old Man Winter and welcome the new gardening season.

Narcissus 'Tete a tete'

Top Ten List of Spring Bulbs for the City

Urban gardeners need bulbs with show-stopping flowers. In addition, a top criteria for this city dweller is a bulb that's not a favorite of wildlife. My years of battles with voles, rabbits, mice, and squirrels force me to leave the beautiful tulip and the delicate crocus off my Top Ten list.

  • Scilla siberica
  • Scilla mischtschenkoana
  • Narcissus 'Tete a tete'
  • Narcissus 'Quail'
  • Hyacinth 'Deft Blue'
  • Allium 'Globemaster'
  • Allium 'Gladiator'
  • Hyacinthoides campanulata
  • Muscari armeniacum
  • Leucojum aestivum

Tips for Purchasing Bulbs

  • Select firm, fresh, healthy-looking bulbs, just as if you were buying a good quality onion or baking potato.
  • Choose bulbs with intact tunics -- those papery husks surrounding bulbs like daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths. Most bulbs will be fine without the tunic, but it can help fight disease.
  • Reject soft, moldy, or diseased bulbs, as well as those that are shriveled or brittle.
  • If mail-order bulbs arrive with defects, send them back.
  • Experiment with some lesser-known bulbs like snow scilla (Scilla mischtschenkoana), altai lily (Ixiolirion tataricum), and fumewort (Corydalis solida).
  • Plant bulbs immediately or store in a cool, dark, dry place.

Tips for Planting Bulbs

  • Add organic matter to the soil for nutrients and drainage.
  • Plant en mass (by the hundreds if possible) for a spectacular show.
  • Wear gloves when handling bulbs.
  • Place shorter bulbs in the front of beds and borders.
  • Try to have everything planted well before the ground freezes. Halloween is a good deadline to set, although I am usually planting extra tulips on Thanksgiving weekend.
  • Mulch the planting area thoroughly to avoid heaving from wintertime thawing and freezing.
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