Time to Buy Bulbs

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Whether your preferred shopping scheme is prowling garden centers, musing over mail order catalogs, probing the internet or all of the above, it’s time to buy spring flowering bulbs to spruce up your landscape color palette. Choices of color, shape, size, plant height and bloom time can transform your garden beds and borders, while making great cut flowers for your table as well. With an assortment of bulbs, you can manage blooms from late January with snowdrops to late May with giant alliums.

The word “bulb” is often used for any plant that can store food underground. This includes true bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes and tuberous roots. This underground storage structure enables the flowering plant to get a good start. If you shop locally select the largest and firmest bulbs for best quality and performance and avoid any that are soft, moldy, dented or nicked. Typically, the bigger the bulb the bigger the bloom.

How to Plant Bulbs

With a little planning, proper planting and watering, bulbs are an easy asset in the garden. Just like with the rest of a good garden, start with the right soil. The ideal pH range for spring flowering bulbs is 6 to 7. A soil test (test kits are available at the Extension Center) will provide information on what your specific conditions are and recommendations on any needed amendments. For bulb vigor and durability, the soil must be well drained but retain enough moisture. In general, blending in compost will help improve drainage in heavy clay soils while slowing drainage to hold moisture in very sandy soils.

Most bulbs thrive in about 5-6 hours of sunlight, however if yours is a shade garden, there are still some beautiful choices available. Spring shade will show off the Lily of the Valley, and the Snowdrop. Tuberous begonias and anemone will light up the shade in summer, as will the range of colors and patterns of the Caladium.

Once the soil temperature drops below 60 degrees F, it’s time to plant. The best method of planting is to dig and loosen the entire bed area to the correct depth for the largest bulb. Press the bulbs into the soil in the planting area and cover with soil. The excavated bed technique makes for better drainage and less soil compaction, so the planting should last longer than individually planted bulbs.

In the absence of label directions for planting, the general recommendation is to plant the bulbs two to three times deeper that the height of the bulb. This means that most large bulbs like tulips or daffodils should be planted about eight inches deep and eight inches apart. Smaller bulbs like crocus and anemones should be planted three to four inches deep and three to four inches apart. Planting depth is always measured from the bottom of the bulb. Most “bulbs” have a top and a bottom, but sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which, so plant them sideways and nature will take care of sending the shoots up and the roots down. Get more bang for your bulb buck by planting in flowing bands and mass groupings. This natural look has more appeal and visual impact than lone polka dotted plantings.

Remember, you can manage constant color and texture in your garden by planting bulbs in layers according to their bloom time. As one type fades, another will be just starting to bloom. Just plant the largest bulbs at the depth recommended on their packaging, and layer smaller bulbs on top.

Settle the soil down around the planted bulbs and get the root zone moistened with a good watering, being careful not to overwater since this can cause bulb rot. Then cover the planted area with two to three inches of mulch to steady temperature variation and control evaporation. The small, early blooming bulbs should only be lightly mulched to prevent difficulty with their ability to pop up and bloom.

Gardening with bulbs is not very expensive, or labor intensive and the payoff is enjoying years of spring color. What a deal!

To learn more about it, take a look at NCSU Horticulture Information Leaflets 8632 and 611



Minda Daughtry is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.