Plant bulbs now for your spring garden

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Ruth Kling

It has been difficult to get excited about the advent of fall weather this year due to a wet September and October. Yet gardening is all about hoping for the best.

This sense of hope is well represented by the spring bulb. Spring bulbs are nature’s little bundles of delayed gratification. In each bulb is a harbinger of spring; a snow drop or crocus, a daffodil or tulip. All this will be yours in exchange for some hard labor now in the fall.

Bulbs are really some of the easiest flowers to grow and perhaps the most rewarding. They only need sun, well draining soil and water if it becomes very dry.

It is very easy to get carried away with purchasing spring bulbs, so I should urge you not to go crazy purchasing bulbs. But it is hard to resist their allure. (Brent and Becky’s Bulbs in Gloucester, Va., is a good, local source for bulbs.)

When to plant

In our climate, we can plant bulbs up through early December in some years if the ground doesn’t freeze, which happens at about 20 to 24 degrees.

However, it is best to plant them when there will still be some time for them to develop a root system before they go completely dormant for the winter. Plant them too early, and the heat will cause them to bloom and they’ll be damaged in the coming cold periods.

But if you see little tips of bulbs coming out of the ground during a warm spell in December or January, just cover them up with some shredded leaf mulch.

If you have purchased so many bulbs that you cannot plant them all at once, as I have been known to do, they can be placed in a paper bag and put in the refrigerator until they can be planted. Be sure to label the bags so you don’t plant daffodils where you wanted the fritillaria.

Fending off the squirrels

Plant all bulbs, including tulips, to a depth of three times the height of the bulb. This depth will help them weather temperature fluctuations and (supposedly) foil squirrels.

However, I never underestimate a squirrel’s ability to dig up something it wants, and squirrels love tulips. I try to preserve the tulips by rolling each bulb in chili powder as a repellent. (Beware: even though chili powder is not toxic to humans, you do not want to inhale it or get some in your eyes!).

Bulbs in pots are practically like cookie jars for squirrels, so cover containers planted with tulips with a bit of chicken wire. The wire keeps the squirrels from digging the bulbs out, but lets the plant emerge.

Remember that many bulbs emerge before trees have their leaves, so a shady spot in summer will be sunny in the early spring.

There is nothing more lovely than some early crocus and grape hyacinth peaking up around the base of a tree. Some bulbs, such as daffodils, spread and only need to be divided every few years.

Other tips for planting

Bulbs like a neutral ph, so it is possible in our rather acidic local soil that you might need to add some lime. (Amend the soil before planting the bulbs, not at the same time).

I do not recommend blood meal as a fertilizer because it attracts rodents. For fertilizer, I prefer to dig in some compost when planting, or organic bulb fertilizer.

Don’t forget the culinary bulbs, like garlic and shallots. Divide a head of garlic or shallots into cloves and plant each one tip up. After the green shoots emerge, mulch with shredded leaves. Next summer you will have plenty of garlic and shallots to eat and share.

Don’t fuss too much. The truth is bulbs are little powerhouses of life. Inside each bulb are the nutrients that the flower needs to bloom in spring.

So, be patient. If the flowers can make it through the winter only dreaming of blooming, so can you.

Falls Church, Va., gardener Ruth Kling blogs at Send her gardening questions  at