Bulbs, the Whole Story

Selecting Bulbs

Selecting high-quality bulbs is important. The flowers, which will appear next spring, have already developed inside the bulbs and poor quality bulbs can result in lack of flowers. Buy the largest bulbs you can get. Known as "Top-size" or sometimes "Heavy-Mother" bulbs, you will not find these for sale at your local Home Depot or Wal-Mart! A high-quality bulb vendor will offer bulbs in open, "Bulk" bins, which allows you to personally view the quality and size, and select the best bulbs possible! This is important because they produce larger and better flowers, and there is less chance of the bulbs becoming dehydrated during their shipping and storage period. Select bulbs that are firm and plump. Small nicks, or loose skins do not affect the quality, but avoid bulbs which has soft spots, shows sign of rotting, or which are very light for their size, which indicates desiccation.

Bulbs arrive in stores early, and it is usually a good idea to buy immediately because you get to choose the best quality first. If you buy online or mail order from reputable bulb vendors, they usually ship at the right planting time for your zone, but be wary, and make sure to do your homework before ordering. There are LOTS of bulb vendors out there who make their living selling low-grade, undersized bulbs at what appear to be "bargain" prices. Just remember, you get what you pay for!!!

Planting Location

Before selecting the location to plant bulbs in the landscape, consider the light requirements of the plant. Does the plant require full sun, partial shade or will it tolerate full shade? Since most early spring bulbs have evolved to grow and bloom before most trees or shrubs leaf out, they can successfully be planted under trees and shrubs. However, keep in mind that most summer blooming bulbs require full sun or may tolerate partial shade.

Spring bulbs planted on a south slope will bloom earlier than the same bulbs planted on a north slope. Spring bulbs planted on a hillside will bloom earlier than bulbs planted in a valley. Cold air is heavier than warm air and behaves like water. It flows down the slope, settling in the low areas.

Preparing Soil

Properly preparing the soil for bulb planting is important. Good soil drainage is essential in raising bulbs. If you have poor soil, or high clay content, it can be improved by adding compost, composted manure, peat moss or some other source of organic material.  The organic material should be worked in the top twelve inches of soil (eighteen inches is even better, if you’re feeling energetic!).

Fertilization

Both spring and summer bulbs need phosphorous to encourage root development. Keep in mind that phosphorous moves very little once applied to the soil. Some bulbs are planted 6 to 8 inches deep. Ideally, the phosphorus needs to be mixed in the soil below where the bulbs will be located so the bulb roots can utilize it. Mix bone meal, Bulb-tone or triple-super-phosphate with the soil in the lower part of the planting bed as it is being prepared.

If bulbs are going to be maintained in a planting bed more than one year, it is important to supply additional nutrients each season. Spring flowering bulbs should be fertilized at least once per year, either in spring or fall, but preferably both. Spring fertilization should be done as soon as the shoots break through the ground in the late winter. Do not fertilize spring flowering bulbs after they have started flowering. This tends to encourage the development of bulb rot and sometimes shortens the life of the flowers.

Summer and fall flowering bulbs should be fertilized monthly from shoot emergence until the plants reach full flower. Apply as per manufacturer's recommendation as listed on the bag.

The optimum pH range for most bulbs is 6 to 7. A soil pH test of the planting area is necessary to determine if lime needs to be applied to adjust the soil pH. If needed, limestone should be worked into the soil. For good bud development, work bone meal into the soil at planting.

Planting Depth

The general rule of thumb for planting spring bulbs is to plant three times as deep as the bulb is tall. This means most large bulbs like tulips or daffodils will be planted about 6-8 inches deep while smaller bulbs will be planted 3-4 inches deep. Planting depth is measured from the bottom of the bulb. This rule of thumb on planting depth does not apply to summer bulbs which have varied planting requirements. For planting depth of summer bulbs, consult the information supplied with the bulbs.

Tulips, daffodils and hyacinths should be planted with the nose of the bulb upward and the root plate downward. The best method of planting is to dig and loosen the entire bed to the proper depth. Press the bulbs into the soil in the planting area and cover with soil. Because the soil in a spaded bed is better drained and prepared, the planting will last longer. This method of planting is preferred over trying to plant bulbs one by one with a bulb planter. In many soils bulb planters do not work well.

Mulching

The bulb bed should be covered with two or three inches of mulch. Mulch will help minimize temperature fluctuation and maintain an optimal moisture level in the planting bed. The small, early booming bulbs should only be mulched lightly, as they are easily smothered.

Watering Bulbs

It's highly important to water the bulbs following planting. This will help settle the soil in the planting bed plus provide needed moisture for the bulbs to start rooting. Fall planted bulbs must root before cold weather. Avoid over-watering at planting time since this can result in bulb rot.

For both spring and summer bulbs, infrequent or shallow watering will not benefit them. Remember that the bulbs may have been planted 6 to 8 inches deep and the water needs to soak to at least that depth. It's best to water your bulbs deeply then allow the bed to drain well. Through the bud, bloom and early foliage stage, add about one inch of water per week if this amount has not been supplied from rainfall. Water with a soaker hose will keep water off the blooms, which can greatly extend their life. Bulbs like alliums, or the shallow planted bulbs, will rot quickly if over-watered in the heat of summer.

Dead-heading

Deadhead the spent flowers. After the flowers wither (hyacinths, daffodils) or the flower petals start to drop (tulips, lilies), cut the spent flower/immature seed head off so the plant can concentrate its energies on enlarging the bulb for next year instead of producing seeds

Mowing Foliage

One of the visual problems with spring bulbs is the foliage that remains after bloom. The foliage can become unsightly if the bulbs are planted in the very front of your garden beds. Foliage should not be mowed off until it turns yellow, at which point the bulbs life cycle is complete. You do not need to wait until the foliage turns completely brown.

The foliage on the smaller bulbs such as snowdrops and scilla will die back rapidly and cause little problem. The foliage on the larger bulbs like tulips and daffodils will take several weeks to die back. Keep in mind that after flowering, the plant needs the green leaves to manufacture food (photosynthesis) that is stored in the bulb for next year's growth. If the foliage is cut off prematurely, the plant can no longer manufacture nutrient reserves for next year. This results in a small, weak bulb which will gradually decline and die out.

There are several ways to divert attention from the yellowing bulb foliage. Interplant the bulbs in the spring using one or two colors of annuals. Place bulbs behind the plants on the front edge of a border planting. Plant taller flowering bulbs behind lower-growing foreground shrubs. Plant bulbs with groundcovers and perennials like hosta or daylilies.

Digging and Storing Spring Bulbs

Once the foliage dies back or matures in the late spring or early summer, the bulb is dormant. Summer is the dormant period for spring bulbs. As the foliage dies back, the roots that nourish the bulbs also die back. With fall rains, the bulb comes out of summer dormancy and roots begin to grow again to provide the bulb nutrients and moisture.

Once the spring bulbs enter dormancy, the time is right to dig the bulbs if needed. Some bulbs benefit from digging to divide the bulbs and spread them out over the bed. If the choice is to dig bulbs, they should be stored in a well ventilated place and replanted in the fall. Every five years daffodils and crocus should be dug and replanted to prevent overcrowding. The first sign of overcrowding will be a decrease in the flower size, uneven bloom and uneven plant height. When this occurs, dig, spread bulbs out and replant.

Digging and Storing Summer Bulbs

Most summer flowering bulbs should be dug and stored when the leaves on the plants turn yellow, or after a killing frost depending on the plant. Use a spading fork to lift the bulbs from the ground. Wash off any soil that clings to the bulbs, except for bulbs that are stored in pots or with the soil around them.

Gently wash the soil off begonia, canna, caladium and dahlia bulbs. Store these bulbs in layers on a slightly moistened bed of peat moss or sawdust in a cool, dark place such as a cellar or garage that is not prone to freezing.  Inexpensive Styrofoam coolers or plastic storage boxes make an ideal bulb-storage container.  Be particularly careful digging and handling Dahlias, as the tuber-clusters are easily broken and damaged.

Inspect your bulbs for signs of disease. Keep only large, healthy bulbs that are firm and free of spots. Discard bulbs which show clear signs of insect or disease, which will help to minimize this problem in your garden next year.

Spread your washed bulbs, such as gladiola, in a shaded place to dry. When dry, store them away from sunlight in a cool, dry basement, cellar, garage or shed at 50°F to 60°F. Avoid temperatures below 40°F or above 60°F unless different instructions are given for a particular bulb.

If you have only a few bulbs, you can keep them in paper bags hung from a ceiling or wall. Store large numbers of bulbs on trays with screen bottoms or in cardboard boxes that are well perforated with plenty of air holes. Be sure that air can circulate around your stored bulbs. Never store bulbs more than two or three layers deep. Deep piles of bulbs generate heat and begin to decay quickly. Separate your bulbs by species or variety before storing them. You can write directly on a clean, dry bulb with a Sharpie marker, or use marking sticks that can be rubber-banded to the bulb or tuber and used for identification in the ground next season.

Best Bulbs for Naturalizing:

Alliums:  Require sun. They can also manage on the sunny edges of woods:

Allium aflatunense - Ornamental garlic (summer)

Allium giganteum - Giant onion (summer)

Allium karataviense -Turkestanonion (summer)

Allium moly - Lily leek or golden garlic (summer)

Allium neapolitanum - Naples onion, daffodil garlic, flowering onion (summer)

Allium oreophilum - Ornamental garlic (early summer)

Allium sphaerocephalon - Drumsticks, ballhead onion, round-headed garlic (summer). The best allium for naturalizing.

Anemones:  Need sun and moist soil, and are beautiful in borders:

Anemone blanda 'Blue Shades' - Greek anemone, windflower (spring)

Anemone blanda Mixed - Windflower mixed (spring)

Anemone blanda 'Pink Star' - Windflower (spring)

Anemone blanda 'White Splendour' - Windflower (spring)

Crocuses:  Come in a wide range of colors and will spread quickly:

Crocus ancyrensis - Golden bunch crocus (late winter/early spring)

Crocus 'Blue Bird' - Botanical crocus (early spring)

Crocus 'Blue Pearl' - Botanical crocus (early spring)

Crocus Botanical Mixed - Species crocus (early spring)

Crocus 'E. P. Bowles' - Botanical crocus (early spring)

Crocus 'Cream Beauty' - Botanical crocus (early spring)

Crocus 'Jeanne d'Arc' - Dutch crocus (spring/early summer)

Crocus 'Pickwick' - Dutch crocus (spring/early summer)

Crocus purpureus grandiflorus - Dutch crocus (spring/early summer)

Crocus 'Remembrance' - Dutch crocus (spring/early summer)

Crocus 'Ruby Giant' - Botanical crocus (late winter/early spring)

Crocus 'Whitewell Purple' - Botanical crocus (late winter/ early spring)

Crocus Yellow - Dutch crocus (spring)

Irises:  Only naturalize well in a non-competitive area with good sun and rich soil:

Iris danfordiae - Dwarf iris (late winter)

Iris reticulata 'Harmony' - Dwarf iris (early spring)

Iris latifolia - English iris, can cover whole yard (early summer

Muscari:  Tolerate late snowfalls and work well with crocuses:

Muscari armeniacum - Blue spike, grape hyacinth (spring)

Muscari botryoides 'Album' - Grape hyacinth (spring)

Daffodils:  Bring sunny colors to the garden before the taller tulips are in bloom:

Narcissus 'Actaea' - Small-cupped daffodil (late spring)

Narcissus 'Barrett Browning' - Small-cupped daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'Birma' - Small-cupped daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'Carlton' - Large-cupped daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'February Gold' - Botanical daffodil (early spring)

Narcissus 'Flower Record' - Large-cupped daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'Fortune' - Large-cupped daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'Hawera' - Botanical daffodil (late spring)

Narcissus 'Ice Follies' - Large-cupped daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'Jack Snipe' - Botanical daffodil (early to midspring)

Narcissus 'Minnow' - Botanical daffodil (early spring)

Narcissus 'Mount Hood' - Trumpet daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'Peeping Tom' - Botanical daffodil (early spring)

Narcissus 'Salome' - Large-cupped daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'Suzy' - Botanical daffodil (midspring)

Narcissus 'Tete a Tete' - Botanical daffodil (early spring)

Tulips:  Are hard to naturalize. You must be cultivar-specific in choosing those you plant, as only certain ones will work. The following are recommended for a naturalized setting:

Tulipa 'Candela' - Botanical tulip (early spring)

Tulipa 'Orange Emperor' - Botanical tulip (midspring)

Tulipa 'Don Quichotte' - Triumph tulip (midspring)

Tulipa 'Kees Nelis' - Triumph tulip (midspring)

Tulipa 'Praestans Fusilier' - Botanical tulip (early spring)

Tulipa 'Princeps' - Botanical tulip (early spring)

Tulipa 'Purissima' - Botanical tulip (early spring)

Tulipa 'Red Emperor' - Botanical tulip (early spring)

Tulipa 'Red Riding Hood' - Botanical tulip (midspring)

Tulipa 'Toronto' - Botanical tulip (early spring)

These showy, lily-flowering tulips will also spread:

Tulipa 'Aladdin' - (late spring)

Tulipa 'Ballade' - (late spring)

Tulipa 'Maytime' - (late spring)

Tulipa 'Red Shine' - (late spring)

Tulipa 'White Triumphator' - (late spring)

Darwin hybrid tulips:  Such as these are great multipliers:

Tulipa 'Apeldoorn' - (midspring)

Tulipa 'Apeldoorn's Elite' - (midspring)

Tulipa 'Beauty of Apeldoorn' - (late spring)

Tulipa Darwin Hybrid Mixed - (mid- to late spring)

Tulipa 'Golden Apeldoorn' - (midspring)

Tulipa 'Holland's Glorie' - (late spring)

Tulipa 'Oxford' - (midspring)

Tulipa 'Striped Apeldoorn' - (late spring)

Also Good for Naturalizing:

Camassia cusickii - Quamash, (late spring) Loves wet soil.

Chionodoxa gigantea - Glory-of-the-snow (early spring). Need sun.

Chionodoxa luciliae - Glory-of-the-snow (early spring). Need sun.

Colchicum autumnale - Meadow saffron (autumn). Need sun.

Erythronium - Dog-toothed violet (spring). Good in shade.

Fritillaria meleagris - Guinea hen flower (spring). Very good at naturalizing.

Galanthus nivalis - Common snowdrop (late winter/early spring)

Ornithogalum umbellatum - Star of Bethlehem (early summer). Good in shade with some sun.

Can become aggressive over time!

Puschkinia libanotica - Striped squill (spring)

Scilla campanulata Mixed - Spanish bluebells (spring)

Scilla siberica - Siberian squill (spring)

Deer and Rodent Resistant Bulbs:

(Latin) name                                                      Common Name

Allium species                                                   Flowering Onions

Chionoxoda species                                        Glory-of-the-Snow

Colchicum species                                           Autumn Crocus

Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora                          Montbretia

Cyclamen species                                            Hardy Cyclamen

Eranthis hyemalis                                             Winter Aconite

Fritillaria species                                               Fritillaries

Galanthus species                                           Snowdrops

Hyacinthus species                                          Hyacinths

Lycoris squamigera                                          Magic Lily

Muscari species                                                                Grape Hyacinths

Narcissus species                                             Daffodils

Ornithogalum nutans                                     Star of Bethlehem

Puschkinia libanotica                                      Striped Squill

Scilla species                                                      Squill

Forcing Bulbs is Easy!

Think about it… All you are doing is simply mimicking a process that occurs in nature constantly, but manipulating the timing to happen when it pleases YOU!

The time to plant?

As soon as you see bulbs for sale in the early autumn, it's not only the right time to plant them in your garden, but to start planting them into containers for forcing. The cool temperatures of autumn are what instigate spring-bulbs to root into the soil and absorb the nutrients necessary to prepare for their big job in the spring, which in our case is to provide us with some beautiful flowers to get us through those cold, gray days of late winter when it seems as though spring will surely never arrive!

Stratification:

Huh? Stratification is the chilling process, which all hardy bulbs need to go through in order to prepare for their big show in the spring. It's crucial that all bulbs be potted by October, or November at the latest, and allowed at least 12-13 weeks to root into the soil and stay cold. Sustained temperatures of 35oF to 45oF are the "happy medium" for almost all hardy bulbs.

Which bulbs are the best to force?

Almost any hardy bulb can be forced, but as a beginner, you may want to try the sure-pleasers, such as Narcissus 'Tete a tete', 'February Gold' are excellent small types and try few of the double-flowered fragrant ones, such as 'White Lion, 'Tahiti' or 'Yellow Cheerfulness'. Tulips are also a great choice, particularly shorter species, such as T. greigii and kaufmanniana varieties, most of which have beautifully mottled foliage to lend extra interest to your pots. Other favorites include 'Apricot beauty' and 'Angelique' (double pink) which are taller and larger-flowered. Any and all varieties of Crocus, Hyacinth, Muscari (Grape Hyacinth) and Scilla are must-haves too!

How do I pot them?

Those motley crews of misfit pots and containers that have been accumulating behind the garage and in your basement now have a chance at a new life!

1) Start with containers that are at least 5" diameter and deep, though larger pots are better, ideally between 6" and 12" diameter.

2) Fill pots approximately half-to two-thirds with a loose, good quality potting soil. You might consider using a mix that is amended with time-release fertilizer.

3) Set bulbs on the soil and lightly press them in, being careful that they are facing the correct way. Bulbs which have a "nose" always go "point-up", but whenever in doubt, simply lay the bulb on its side, as they will right themselves upon rooting in.

4) Finish filling the pot too slightly below the rim, making sure that the bulbs is covered with 1" of soil or slightly more. Tamp lightly, and water well.

Where do I store them?

After potting and watering, you can store your pots side-by-side against the north side of your house or under shrubbery where it's cool and shady. Cover the pots with a sheet of burlap or a similar covering, which can "breath". Next, cover over this with 3-4 inches of loose mulch or shredded leaves and finally with a sheet of white plastic. This will ensure that your pots stay cold and moist, but ideally NOT freezing. Try to keep your cluster of pots in an easily accessible area, just in case the snows of winter make finding them again difficult!

When do I bring them inside?

After the 12-15 week stratification period, you may bring your pots inside. You may want to bring just one in each week, or a few at a time. Set the pot (s) in as sunny and cool a window as you can offer them, and water with a dilute fertilizer. The cooler the bulbs stay, the longer you can expect their blooms to last. Within just 7 to 10 days the flower buds will begin to show themselves, and within 2 weeks or so they will begin flowering!

What about after they have bloomed?

1) After flowering you may remove spent blooms, but continue watering and feeding lightly every weeks or so, and give them as sunny a window as possible.

2) By late April, you can transplant your bulb pot into your garden in a sunny area and water it in well. The plants will complete their life cycle in the ground and the foliage will dieback by mid June or so, to grace your garden again next spring!

A few other tips:

1) Try "layering" your bulbs for a spectacular show. Fill a large pot one-quarter with soil. Set a dozen or so Crocus bulbs in place. Fill the pot to half-way and set 6 or 8 tulip bulbs in place.  Fill the pot three quarters and set 4 or 5 narcissus bulbs in place and finish filling with soil. This will give you an incredible effect that looks like an entire garden in miniature!

2) A few days after you have brought your pots inside and have started to see new growth, consider sprinkling Wheatgrass (Catgrass) seed on the surface of the soil. This will sprout in 3 days and within a week will look like a lush green carpet around the base of your bulbs.

3) Crocus and Hyacinth bulbs have the unique ability to be forced without having pre-pot them, and can be forced in ordinary water! Simply keep the bare bulbs in your refrigerator in a brown paper bag for the stratification period. Make sure to note on your calendar when it's time to bring them out for forcing. Don't get impatient! A bulb that has had an insufficient stratification period will grow rather stunted and may not even bloom at all. Choose a container with a small mouth that will allow the bulb to sit on top without falling in. Fill the container so that just the base of the bulb is submerged. Set the container in a sunny window and monitor the water level every day or two. After blooming, discard the bulb and start again.

4) For more instantaneous effect, try Paperwhite Narcissus. These are ready to grow as soon as you like, and need no stratification. They can be potted in soil, but are more popularly forced in a bed of gravel or marble chips standing in water. For a more elegant look, try using colored glass marbles.

If you want to experiment with forcing bulbs, but don't have the time, patience, or place to do so, try starting with Amaryllis. These big, bold flowers are sure to please you and are quite easy to grow. Simply put them into an 8"-or-so diameter pot with approximately the top-third of the bulb exposed above ground. Keep them in a very warm, sunny window and keep lightly moist until you start to see the flower bud and leaves emerging. The larger the bulb that you start with, the more flower stalks you can expect to have. A jumbo Amaryllis bulb can easily have up to 3 stems successively, with 4 or even 5 flowers per stem! After flowering, remove the spent flower stems and continue watering and feeding until late spring when the weather has warmed up sufficiently that you can put them outside for the summer. Keep your plant in a partly shaded location for the summer until late September. At this point your may bring your Amaryllis inside and set it in a very dark, dry room, such as your basement. Allow the foliage to completely turn yellow and then brown. After a period of 10 weeks, or longer if you like, you can bring your plant into a sunny, warm window, cut back the dead foliage, start watering and feeding again, and your Amaryllis will miraculously come back to life to start the process over again!

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