Plants grown from bulbs will provide major pops of color next spring.

Plants grown from bulbs will provide major pops of color next spring.

Bulb basics: Now’s the time to buy tulips, daffodils and more

Here’s the lowdown on how to plant bulbs, to enjoy vivid color in your garden for years to come.

It is time to plant spring-blooming bulbs in our Northwest gardens, and nothing could be easier.

Garden centers everywhere are well stocked with colorful packages of these sometimes odd-looking structures that, botanically speaking, can fall into several different categories (such as tubers, corms and true bulbs), but collectively are usually referred to simply as bulbs. While my self-professed botanical nerd side would love to delve deeply into the differences, from a practical standpoint, just call them bulbs. That being said, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of gardening with bulbs.

In the trade we generally lump bulbs into two groups, major bulbs (like tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and alliums) that are usually larger and more dramatic, and minor bulbs that are smaller but can be just as impactful when planted in large drifts. Both groups of bulbs are considered to be perennials and should be around for many years of enjoyment.

Whether a major or minor bulb, they all should be planted in drifts. Nothing looks dumber than a row of soldiers spaced out one foot apart along the edge of the garden bed. The size of the drift will depend on the scale of your garden — the larger the beds, the larger the drifts. For tulips and daffodils, that could mean dropping a dozen bulbs into one hole. To do this I would advise you to never plant one bulb at a time (unless it is a very large bulb like a giant allium or a fritillaria). Dig the hole large enough to accommodate all 12 at once — that is, usually the whole bag or maybe even two bags. As for the depth, generally three times the diameter of the bulbs works well. If you have well-drained sandy soil, you can go deeper, and conversely, if you have a heavy clay soil that tends to stay water-logged during the winter, plant them higher. For all of the minor bulbs, which tend to be quite small, an inch or two deep is usually plenty.

Sometimes it is hard to tell which end is up. Rest assured; the bulbs will figure it out. For tulips and daffodils, the pointy side goes up. Same for Hyacinths. It can be harder to tell with little bulbs, like anemones or crocus. If you are not sure which end is up, plant them sideways.

While bulbs contain everything they need to produce a bloom, they will always look bigger and better if you throw in some organic food at the time of planting. Bone meal has always been the traditional amendment to use, but a balanced bulb food is good, too. As they finish up their blooming cycle in the spring, give them a second application as well. And, always let the foliage die down naturally rather than cutting it off when it is still green. If you can’t stand the look, then plant something in front of them, like an ornamental grass, that will start growing about the same time the bulbs start fading.

Like I mentioned earlier, bulbs are perennials and in theory should last in our gardens for many years. In reality I have found that tulips tend to peter out after a couple of years and need to be replanted, while daffodils will continue to increase in numbers each successive spring. As for minor bulbs (like the species tulips, daffodils, crocus, grape hyacinth, snow drops, winter aconites, puschkinia, scillas, and ipheion, to name just a few), these are probably the most reliable for naturalizing and coming back every year. They might be small in size, but over time they can create some pretty impressive displays. Most are also some of the earliest to bloom (as early as January for winter aconites), whereas daffodils won’t usually bloom before March and tulips wait until April or even May.

With a little careful planning, we can get six months of color from bulbs, starting with the abovementioned aconites on through all of the various colors and forms of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, and finishing up in late May or June with those giant blue orbs of alliums. By that time our summer blooming bulbs (like gladiolas, lilies, dahlias and begonias) are starting to take off. The truth is, with the right combinations, bulbs can provide us with year ‘round color — in the landscape and/or our containers!

Considering that most gardeners tend to purchase plants that are already in color, it is safe to say that gardening with bulbs certainly takes a leap of faith. Admittedly, they aren’t much to look at in those netted bags, but oh what potential lies sleeping in those fleshy stems we call bulbs. This is your big chance to grab a few before they are all gone until next year. Trust me when I say that you will be glad you did come spring! Stay safe and keep on gardening.

Steve Smith represents Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, and can be reached at sunnysidenursery@msn.com

Free class

The next free classes at Sunnyside Nursery are “Fall Color & Winter Bloomers,” 10 a.m. Oct. 8, and “Spring Blooming Bulbs” at 11 a.m. Oct. 9. For more information, go to www.sunnysidenursery.net/classes.

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