Here’s how to ensure a welcome dose of color next spring.
FOR CHEERY SPRING COLOR, plant bulbs this fall. The best thing about spring-blooming bulbs is that they already have a flower ready to go, so they can’t fail to bloom. That is, unless squirrels eat them, or your soil is pure clay, rotting the bulbs in our rainy winter. They do great planted in containers, as well, so if you live in an apartment or condo with a balcony, all you need is a frost-proof pot for a colorful spring display.
Spring-blooming bulbs need at least 10 to 12 weeks in the cold ground to establish the roots necessary to bloom, so make sure to plant them by the end of November. When planting, mix organic bulb food and bone meal into the soil, and water them in to remove any air pockets.
Next spring, give the bulbs a nutritional boost by working in an organic bulb food around the plants as soon as they begin to set flower buds. Wait to cut the foliage down until it dies back completely, to allow the plant to store as much energy as possible in the bulb.
Choose a mix of varieties that bloom early-, mid- and late-season to prolong the display through spring.
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Perhaps the most popular of all spring-blooming bulbs are tulips. Unfortunately, most of the fancy tulips don’t like our rainy winters and often don’t come back to bloom well after the first year. If you have well-drained soil, try planting the bulbs 12 inches deep. Using this technique, my Darwin and Empress Hybrids have bloomed more than 10 years in a row. Another technique is to plant species tulips. The flowers are smaller, but they make up for their stature with vibrant colors and a tough constitution. A few favorites that have bloomed for me every spring for many years are Tulipa bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder’ (lilac flowers with a yellow center) the unpronounceable Tulipa kolpakowskiana (yellow flowers, streaked red) and the even-harder-to-pronounce Tulipa vvedenskyi ‘Tangerine Beauty’ (red flowers streaked flaming orange).
If squirrels tend to eat your tulip bulbs, protect them by surrounding them with chicken wire when you plant them. If the squirrels make a habit of eating the buds when they emerge in spring, adopt a Jack Russell terrier, and make sure the first word he or she learns is “Squirrel!”
Fortunately, those naughty squirrels don’t bother quite a few spring-blooming bulbs. Snowdrops (Galanthus) are among the first to bloom, often coming up through the snow. Prized by collectors, these small but showy members of the amaryllis family are practically indestructible and form impressive-sized clumps over time.
Daffodils and all types of Narcissus have poison bulbs that squirrels won’t touch, and the bulbs of hyacinth also contain toxins that keep the squirrels away.
A real charmer that squirrels leave alone is Chionodoxa (Glory of the Snow). It’s easy to grow, and although the attractive blue flowers are small, they often reseed to form large colonies over time.
A longtime favorite of mine is Fritillaria. Squirrels never bother these unique and colorful spring bloomers. In fact, old-time gardeners often plant the bulbs of Fritillaria imperialis ‘Corona Imperial’ with their tulips, because the big, beautiful orange or yellow flowers smell like a fox and repel squirrels, rabbits and deer.
Finally, and most important, don’t forget to plant them. There’s nothing worse than finding a forgotten bag of bulbs in the garage in spring!
Mark your calendars, because the place to find most of these bulbs, and gazillions of others, is at the Hardy Plant Society of Washington’s Fall Bulb and Plant Sale, held Oct. 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Center for Urban Horticulture.