Bulb Planting Tips
Can you believe it's already the end of August? Fall bulb planting season in just around the corner. I thought I'd go over some basics about planting bulbs (although I know many of you are pros!). I'll also include some information on planting masses and combinations of bulbs. With the right mix of bulbs you can fill your garden with color for months on end.
If you're wondering about such questions as how far apart do I plant them and how deep or when will my bulbs bloom, a good place to start is our online description. For each variety we sell we have details on the growing requirements. One of our customers gave me a great suggestion - when he orders a particular bulb he prints off the description to use when the bulbs arrive. Another place you can look for information is the Planting Instructions we send with your order. Some of our newsletters also have information on particular bulbs. See the Archive
The first thing to know is that you should plant your bulbs as soon as possible after you receive them. If you're not able to do that, open the bag and let them air out. Try to keep them as cool as possible.
Your soil should be well-draining to prevent the bulbs from rotting in cool weather. If your soil is heavy you might want to add some coarse sand. There is some controversy about adding bone meal at the time of planting -- some say it has very few nutrients. Bulbs contain all the nutrients they need to get them growing well through that first winter. If you want to encourage them to come back the next year a better idea would be to fertilize them in the Spring after they've bloomed, when they're storing nutrients for next year. You can use compost or a slow-release fertilizer formulated specifically for bulbs and apply it to the top of the soil.
In cold areas of the country you can plant your bulbs as long as you can work the soil. They will, however, have more time to grow roots if you plant them at least by mid-November. In warmer areas of the country you many need to cold treat certain bulbs like tulips and plant them in the Spring. (See our Bulbs for the South
page and Recommendations for Growing Daffodils in the South
Dig the hole - twice the diameter of the bulb (check our planting guide for specific variety recommendations). A bulb digger or narrow hand trowel works well. In the South, most bulbs can be planted shallower.
For a natural woodland or meadow effect, you can scatter your bulbs in a natural pattern, planting where the bulbs fall. Or to make a bed of bulbs, use stakes and string to mark off an area and dig out the soil to a depth of 8 inches for most large bulbs. Arrange your bulbs 6-8 inches apart.
Place the bulb in the hole or in your dug-out bed -- make sure the pointy side is facing up -- and push the bulb down gently. If you're not sure which end is the pointy one, don't worry - the flower will still find its way up. If you've made a bed of bulbs, you can also try layering. Cover up your deepest bulbs (usually Tulips) with soil, then add other bulbs in between. A rough guide is: Tulips at 8", Daffodils at 6", and Crocus, Grape Hyacinths, small Alliums and Iris Reticulata at 3". The combinations are endless!
Be sure to plant your bulbs in groups. Avoid planting one bulb alone or making a long thin line. Clusters of bulbs will give you the greatest colorful impact, even if you don't have enough bulbs for a big bed.
Cover and Mulch
Fill the hole using the soil you dug out, pat down and water in if it's dry. Then be sure to mark the spot! I like to include a Grape Hyacinth bulb as a "marker." Since Grape Hyacinths send up their leaves in the Fall, next fall it will be easy to know where you've already planted in case you want to fill in with additional bulbs. You don't want to disturb your bulbs by trying to plant something in the same spot!
You can cover your bed with two or three inches of mulch. We don't really use the mulch to keep the bulbs from freezing, but a good mulch cover will keep the ground from heaving from alternate freezes and thaws and maintain an optimal moisture level. Some folks like to rake the mulch away in late winter, but I've not noticed that it makes a difference and can damage early-sprouting leaves if you're not careful.
After your bulbs have flowered, cut back the flower stems to the ground but don't remove the green leaves yet. This is the most critical part of the bulb's life cycle. Your bulb needs the green leaves to store food in the bulb for next year's growth. Cutting the dying leaves off will result in small weak bulbs which will eventually die out. It's critical that you let the foliage die back on its own.
But you don't need to be stuck with an ugly bed of yellowing leaves. You can plant annuals in front of the emerging flowers as early in the spring as possible. Alyssums or pansies would be good choices. Or plant taller flowering bulbs behind lower growing foreground shrubs. Daylilies make wonderful bedmates to help mask the dying foliage, especially the early-blooming ones like Stella D'Oros.
You can plant low-growing bulbs in front of the high for bulbs that bloom around the same time. But if the low growing bulbs bloom early and the tall bulbs bloom late, plant the tall in front. They can help camouflage the dying foliage of the smaller bulbs.
Try experimenting with color combinations of bulbs that bloom around the same time. For example, our Pink Impression Darwin Tulip would be absolutely gorgeous underplanted with our blue Grape Hyacinths. Or our Parade and Yellow Parade Tulips together.
You can stagger the bloom time by planting mid- and late-season bloomers together, creating a spring display that blooms in succession, for a whole season of color!