Frequently Asked Questions: Spring Blooming Bulbs

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Planting bulbs is a simple way to add color to the garden. It’s as easy as “Dig, drop, done!” Since fall is the time to plant spring blooming bulbs, here are the answers to some common questions about bulbs.

How soon should I plant my bulbs after I buy them?

Typically, it's best to get them in the ground as soon as possible after bringing them home. If you must wait, store bulbs in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. You don't want to wait too long since bulbs need ample time in autumn to develop roots. So dig and drop six weeks or so prior to hard ground frosts and you'll be done in plenty of time for spring blooms. Bulbs have one mission in life and that's to grow, so even if you dig and drop when the ground is already hard and chilled, be sure to water (though not when it will freeze) and bulbs will begin their root growth cycle. They aim to please!

Is it better to plant bulbs earlier or later in the fall?

The earlier you can plant bulbs in fall, the better. Planting times vary, of course, depending on your hardiness zone. Bulbs need time to establish strong root systems before the winter frosts set in. Don't forget to water newly planted bulbs — it helps get the roots going! Once the cold arrives, bulbs enter a new cycle to prepare for spring blooming.

Can I store bulbs in the refrigerator?

Often times, people seeking the best selection will buy bulbs before they're ready to plant them. If you must wait, you can keep bulbs in the crisper drawer so long as you avoid storing them with ripening fruit. They should be fine for several weeks or even months if properly handled.

Can I plant flower bulbs around trees and shrubs?

Trees, shrubs and bulbs are all competing for nutrients in the soil, so flower bulbs planted in these locations need to be able to hold their own. It can be a good idea to choose early-flowering bulbs for these sites since they'll stand out among the still bare woody plants. A mixture of at least six varieties of naturalizing bulbs that flower at successive times is perfect here. Plant them in variously sized clusters in the lightest spots in a wooded area, or along the edge of a wood. You'll enjoy years of flowering that becomes increasingly profuse year after year.

Do tulips prefer a sunny or a shady spot in the yard?

Tulips love both sun and shade. Remember, though, that tulips bloom in spring when there's a lot of sun because all the deciduous, non-evergreen trees in your yard have yet to leaf out.

How deep do I plant flower bulbs?

In general, plant 3x as deep as the bulb is long (measured from the base of the bulb). Typically 8 inches(20 cm) for big bulbs such as daffodils, tulips and hyacinths and 5 inches (13 cm) for small bulbs like grape hyacinths and crocus. Plant in well-drained soil, cover up, water well and wait for spring. It's as simple as dig, drop, done! 

Can you plant bulbs in any kind of garden and in every type of soil?

So long as the soil drains well, bulbs will thrive. Which means you should avoid planting them in hollows or low spots or under drain spouts, where water collects or puddles. In soggy soil, most bulbs will rot. Exceptions include echequered fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), camassia and leucojum.

What's naturalizing about?

 Naturalized Daffodils (Narcissus)

Naturalized Daffodils (Narcissus)

For bulbs indicated as naturalizing bulbs, it simply means that they're most likely to come up and flower again in future years. Successful naturalizing depends on soil composition, pH levels and drainage. And, of course, the bulb's specific growing needs. Keep in mind that after bulbs bloom in spring, wait a month or two to allow them to die back completely. This gives the plant the energy it needs to recharge for next year's bloom.

Should I apply mulch? How deep? When?

Bulbs don't require mulch, but it can help to keep the soil moist while maintaining a cool, stable soil temperature. Three inches is plenty. Apply when the ground is cool and just before it freezes.

If you mulch when the ground is still warm, field mice and other critters might make themselves a warm, winter home and help themselves to some tasty bulb treats.

Should I fertilize bulbs?

Bulbs contain the nutrients they need to bloom their first year, but a fertilizing program will keep plants healthy and ward off diseases and pests. Compost and manure are two good organic fertilizers that improve the soil and ensure a good soil structure for bulbs. Use organic supplements to add nutritional balance. Compound mineral fertilizers can also be applied, but check the label to see if fertilizing is appropriate for your bulbs and the best time of year to do so.

How do I keep squirrels and deer from digging up my bulbs and destroying my garden?

These furry foragers aren't so cute after nibbling their way through a bulb garden, are they? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to these relentless and challenging pests. While daffodils and other narcissi bulbs taste awful to them, their champagne tastes can wreak havoc on plantings of tulips and crocus. Using pest-resistant plant material in exposed beds and planting vulnerable tulips and crocuses in protected areas (near the front door, for instance) can be effective. Commercial repellents are often sticky and unpleasant to deal with or wash away in the rain. One sure-fire line of defense is to lay wire mesh such as chicken wire on top of the bed. Squirrels can't dig through it and the flowers will find their way through the holes. Place mulch over the wire and it will be invisible.

A starving deer will eat just about anything, and the loosened soil after planting in autumn makes bulbs particularly vulnerable to industrious squirrels. So don't advertise your plantings by leaving debris like papery bulb tunics or scented bits from the bulb bags at the site. Garden writer Judy Glattstein suggests laying old window screens in frames on top of the newly-worked up soil after planting. The screen foils the squirrel but allows air and rainfall to get through. Once the ground has settled, remove the screens.

Are there bulbs that scare off mice?

Don't we wish! While no bulb will ward off mice, voles, moles and other underground pests, there are some easy precautions that can protect your bulbs. One is to plant bulbs deeply enough then cover them properly with soil to deter mice. A second is to create a barrier: simply lay finely meshed netting or chicken wire around the border of the planting then tuck the edges slightly into the soil. If voles are a problem, mix some Perma-till into the planting soil and add a layer of Perma-till on the soil over the bulbs.