I like to bend the rules once I’ve learned them. It makes me a better gardener – even if it ends in failure. And through hard experience, I’ve learned a few unconventional things about planting bulbs that I’d like to share with you.
Apart from one or two of them, the following ten tips aren’t ones you’ll necessarily see commonly mentioned in articles about bulbs, but they’ll serve you well as you face your landscape with sixteen bags of bulbs in the wheelbarrow, and wonder, “Can I just…???”
1. You’ve got more time than you think to plant.
It’s best to plant spring-flowering bulbs in mid-fall, when rain is beginning to fall and temperatures are cooler. But life doesn’t always work out that way. Luckily, you can push the envelope if you know what you’re doing.
The key is giving them enough time and moisture to root successfully (and, if you’re in a warmer climate) enough time for vernalization (a specific period of cold).
When a bulb roots, its cell walls become elastic. This has an anti-freeze effect on the bulb which allows it to survive the winter. If you have a dry period after you plant them, and then experience freezing weather, it’s a good chance you’ll have dead, mushy bulbs by February. Water your bulbs in thoroughly if you’re not expecting rain.
I have gone out in the bitter cold of late late December, sleet on my back, curses on my tongue, and planted 250 daffodil bulbs in my USDA Zone 6b garden before the soil froze. I also had a bulb auger (see below) and good waterproof boots, gloves, and parka.
2. Use a bulb auger to save time and your wrists.
Buying a bulb auger is the single best thing you can do to save your sanity when faced with 650 bulbs that need to be planted over two days (last year’s circus). It’s an auger bit that fits onto your household ½-inch electric drill and digs a hole up to seven inches deep.
I use and recommend Power Planter’s line of auger bits (having used mixing augers previously). They come in two different widths (2” and 3”), and allow you to stay at ground level where you can drill, plant, cover, and repeat without breaking a sweat. They also make longer versions if you’re working with another gardener walking behind you dropping bulbs and covering them with soil.
How many holes have I hand-dug over the years? I can’t bear to think about it. I was kindly sent a Power Planter two years ago and have never looked back. Here’s a quick video of me using mine to plant blooming pots of daffodils last spring.
One caveat: If you are a plant collector and have a small garden, you run the risk of chewing up precious [dormant] plants within seconds. In the spring and summer, use a bamboo stick to mark where you can safely insert a few bulbs so you’ll be able to use this labor saving device in the fall.
One more caveat: MAKE SURE that you set the torque of your drill to match the strength of your wrists. The auger can get hung up on roots and stones and hurt you if you don’t make sure your drill is set to slip where your strength fails.
Congratulations to Diane L., of Frederick, Maryland, who won the Power Planter Garden Starter Pack GIVEAWAY featured at the end of this article!
3. Plant bulbs deer don’t eat.
If you’ve got a deer problem, don’t even bother growing tulips, crocus, or summer lilies unless you can fully protect them with a house-only accessible deck, a fence, or a 12-gauge. Why keep abusing yourself by buying expensive deer food? Sure, PlantSkydd deer spray works, but you have to be honest with yourself if you’re really going to use it.
Instead, look for bulbs in the Amaryllidaceae family, members of which contain poisonous alkaloids. Narcissus, Leucojum (Summer Snowflake), and Galanthus (Snowdrops), are examples of spring-blooming genera in this family. Try Lycoris, Crinum, Amaryllis, and Nerine for the summer time. Though not amaryllids, Ornithogalum, Allium, Fritillaria, and Colchicum are also highly deer resistant.
4. Wait to fertilize.
Bulbs that perennialize (come back year after year) come back even better when the soil is fertile and the gardener is generous. I don’t fertilize my bulbs with bone meal when I plant them, as this basically signals four-footed creatures to dig them back up again; and synthetic fertilizers can hurt tender roots with direct contact and moisture.
Instead, I top dress with composted manure in the spring. Feed your soil and you will feed your bulbs.
🍃Opinion columnist @ahs_gardening 🍃Contributing editor @gardenrant 🍃Advocate for Curiosity, Courage and Joy in garden building. Virginia, USA, Z6b.
5. Force the bulbs you can’t plant.
Forcing bulbs in the winter months allows you to use up the bulbs you didn’t plant and get an early jump on spring.
I usually buy a bag of tulip bulbs specifically for this purpose and get more enjoyment from watching the bulbs grow and blossom than I do from simply purchasing a bunch of cut flowers.
Bulbs must be given a period of vernalization and the easiest way of doing this is to put them in a cold, frost-free location such as a cold basement or refrigerator just above 35F.
Do not put them in a fridge that will share space with fruit. The ethylene gas given off will cause the bulbs to abort their blooms.
In February, remove the bulbs from storage and use them to bring the fragrance and color of spring to your indoor spaces. Find more details here on how to do this.
6. Put together your bulb order in June.
When the spring season with all its failures and successes is still very visible, make plans for what you want, where you want it, and how many bulbs it’s going to take to get you there.
Wandering around aimlessly in the late fall trying to remember where and what you’ve already planted doesn’t constitute intelligent design.
You’ll waste, you’ll waffle, and you’ll wish you’d just taken a few minutes with a beer and a notebook in June. Set up a chair overlooking your garden, grab that drink and take a few beautiful moments to contemplate what will be.
For more thoughts about early bulb orders and some of my favorite bulb choices, click here.
7. Match foliage size to your planting area.
I cannot begin to express how much I hate seeing daffodil foliage tied up, but I’m not such an earth mama that I get a thrill from seeing long, flaccid leaves ruining my epimedium display.
The best way of dealing with this is planting well to begin with.
Save larger cultivars for wilder areas you can easily wait to mow, such as meadows or edge of woodlands, and use more dainty cultivars for your cultivated beds.
Larger flowering bulbs with early emerging basal foliage (foliage that grows close to the soil), such as allium, are a great choice for cultivated beds where surrounding perennials are likely to grow up around the yellowing leaves and render them invisible.
Considering BOTH the foliage of your bulb and the flower will help you to avoid witnessing that awkward period that the bulbs desperately need to build strength for next year’s glorious display.
8. Plant bulbs in plastic pots you can switch out.
This is the best way I know (short of having staff I can command), to ensure a great bulb display in some of my favorite containers near the house. Bulbs are planted into large 3 to 5 gallon black nursery pots and set in an exposed (but out of the way) part of the fenced vegetable garden where they will benefit from a cold snap and plenty of natural moisture.
As they begin to bud and bloom, I put them in the pots near the house. Once they go over, they are fertilized and removed to recuperate out of sight. With the exception of tulips, which are discarded, the bulbs are eventually planted somewhere in the garden.
You can find excellent instructional videos on planting bulbs in pots as well as plenty of inspiring ‘recipes’ for combos at flowerbulbs.com – a European organization dedicated to promoting the beauty and versatility of bulbs.
9. Look for bulb bargains in late fall.
There are some serious deals to be had out there in October and November. The 2020 Rush to Garden will probably change available inventory, but normally these months are a bargain bulb hunter’s paradise. Put a note on your 2021 calendar.
You must go into it with the same attitude you use to shop thrift stores, in that you may not find what you need, but you’ll probably find something you want. Check out Van Englens, and Brent & Beckys in particular.
10. Just. Get. Started.
Next spring you’ll be extremely annoyed with yourself that you didn’t at least buy a bag of tulips to force. I still regret many of the first years at my former house that I let go by without focusing harder on a bulb display. Get started slowly, but get started. Bulbs are a simple yet stunning addition to the garden, and give us an incredible burst of color just when we need it most.
Win a Garden Starter Pack from
Through the generosity of Power Planter, I’m offering readers of Small Town Gardener the opportunity to win a Power Planter Starter Pack with two bulb augers to help you plant all those bulbs you still have waiting for you!
Here’s how: Simply make sure you’re subscribed to this site. It’s really that easy! A winner will be chosen at random from ALL US Resident subscribers and announced on November 1st.
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Watch your email! A runner-up will be chosen if this great giveaway is not claimed within 24 hours. Good luck and happy bulb planting!
Giveaway update – Congratulations Diane L., of Frederick, Maryland who won this fantastic prize! Happy planting Diane, and thank you to all subscribers who are automatically entered into all random drawings.
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