Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
September, 2003
Regional Report

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The sunny disposition of this tulip chases away winter doldrums.

Tis the Season for Bulb Planting

Have you visited your local garden center lately? Spring-flowering bulbs are beginning to turn up by the bin, bag, and bushel basket. Although the weather is still warm, bulb planting time is here.

Bulbs are relatively easy plants to grow. In fact, they will grow just about anywhere and in just about any type of soil. But for the healthiest plants and the most spectacular flower display year after year, it's best to plant them in well-drained, compost-enriched soil.

As you browse the nurseries searching for that perfect combination of spring bulbs, don't forget the little plants - crocus, grape hyacinth, snowdrop, winter aconite, dwarf beardless iris, scilla, and glory of the snow. Of all these plants, I have to admit crocuses are my favorite. In my garden, crocuses are the first to emerge, reliably producing bright purple or yellow flowers even when there is snow on the ground.

Getting Ready
Generally, the earlier a bulb blooms in the spring, the earlier in the fall it should be planted. For that reason, I always plant snowdrops before crocus, and crocus before tulips. One exception to the rule is the daffodil. Daffodils need a long growing season to establish a good root system, so plant them earlier in the fall. Most bulb experts recommend that fall bulb planting should begin when soil temperatures start dropping to 55 to 60 degrees F.

Select the Best
With bulbs, bigger is better. A bulb contains all the nourishment it needs for healthy growth, so the bigger the bulb, the healthier the plant and the bigger the blooms. Bulb sizes are usually listed on the labels of packaged bulbs and in catalog descriptions. Most bulbs are graded based on the size of their circumference, and they're priced accordingly. Daffodils are graded by size as well as by number of "noses" or points on the bulbs. Double-nosed (DN) daffodils range from the large-sized DNI to the smaller (and cheaper) DNIII. I purchase the largest bulbs I can afford, knowing that their flowers will be prime.

Along with size, look for firm, healthy bulbs with no signs of mold. Soft, mushy bulbs have likely been mishandled or stored improperly; just walk away from these.

Choosing Your Site
For best results, pick a spot that gets at least six hours of direct sunshine a day and has well drained soil. Unlike vegetable gardens with their straight-as-an-arrow rows of peas, beans, and onions, flower bulbs look their best when planted in sweeping drifts or in large clumps. An expanse of tulips is far more impressive than a single-file edging of tulips; a clump of daffodils is more effective than spots of yellow flowers sprinkled throughout the garden; and, a swath of crocuses holds the eye longer than a forlorn outcropping lost in a sea of bare ground.

To plant 100 bulbs at the recommended five per square foot, you'll need an area of about 20 square feet. Dragging out your old math skills, you may remember that the area of a square or rectangle is length times width. So, for 100 bulbs, you'll need to mark out an area of say 4 feet by 5 feet or maybe 2 feet by 10 feet.

Bulb planting depth (measured from top of bulb to soil level) should be two to three times the greatest diameter of the bulb. If your soil is very sandy, plant a bit deeper; in heavy clay, don't plant quite as deep. Keep in mind that recommended planting depths are measured to the top of the bulb, so you should plan to excavate the area 1 to 2 inches deeper to account for the height of the bulb. This depth of planting will help to protect the bulbs against frost, animals, and physical damage due to hoeing and light cultivating.

Using a bulb planter or trowel, dig a series of single planting holes, or use a spade to dig out an area large enough to accommodate an entire drift of bulbs. At the bottom of the planting hole, sprinkle a little bonemeal or superphosphate along with some well-rotted manure or good compost. Place bulbs into the hole, pointy end up, spacing them as far apart as the size of their blossoms. Some bulbs may end up sideways or upside down when covered with soil. Don't worry, they will grow properly thanks to geotropism: plants always grow opposite gravity. Cover the bulbs with soil and water the area thoroughly. The water will wash soil in around the bulbs, eliminating air pockets.

When you're finished planting, wash up and wait for spring! The lush beds of flowers you've just created will be a joy to behold.

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