Spring-blooming bulbs should be planted within the next few weeks. They are a wonderful family gardening project, especially for kids, because they are easy to grow, have beautiful blooms, and give everyone something to watch for in the garden as the days grow longer.
When buying bulbs, look for firm, solid bulbs that are large and well developed for their particular variety and species. Smaller, bargain bulbs often bloom poorly. Bulbs planted later than mid-November may still bloom the following spring, but they may not bloom as well.
Depending upon species and variety, spring-blooming bulbs can bloom as early as February and as late as June, and some species can vary greatly in size, color and form; so make sure you read the label and know what you’re buying. And experiment, as there are many more bulbs out there than just tulips, crocus and daffodils, as wonderful as those can be.
Most bulbs prefer good, organically-amended and well-drained soil and prefer full sun to partial sun. In general, they should be planted three times their diameter deep and double their diameter apart. They look best clumped in groups, so it’s easiest to dig one large hole and then backfill it.
For best results, many growers advise that you fertilize them with bulb fertilizer when planting and again in the spring when they are about two inches high. You may also use a basic granular 5-10-10 fertilizer instead. Frankly, we don’t fertilize and the bulbs seem to do just fine, but we have been building up our soil over the last 25 years.
Remove the spent blossoms but let the leaves die back naturally. Don’t braid, fold, or remove the leaves early.
Bulbs are generally pretty trouble-free, but protect them from slug damage in the spring. Those baby slugs just adore the blossoms.
If your freshly-planted bulbs have a habit of disappearing, then you may have a squirrel or vole (meadow mice) problem. Squirrels adore crocus; and voles (don’t confuse them with moles) love erythroniums (avalanche lilies, etc.) among other things. Try using a wire cage of hardware cloth or chicken wire to protect the bulbs.
Narcissus bulb fly can be a problem in our area for daffodils. It does not affect bulbs planted the first year, but after blooming the fly lays its egg at the base of the foliage and the maggot burrows into the bulb and weakens or destroys it for the following year. We now plant daffodils every year to offset the loss to this pest.
Tulips are best when treated as an annual in our area for two reasons. First, our growing conditions are not the best for naturalizing tulips. They generally like well-drained, rich, sandy, alkaline soil with warm, dry summers and cold winters. Our soils tend to be acidic and too wet.
Second, and more importantly, most tulips are sold as mother bulbs, which means that after blooming the first year, they form “offshoots” or small bulbs at the base of the mother bulb which then draw energy away from it so that it won’t bloom the following year. And then it can take several years for these offshoots to become mother bulbs and bloom themselves.
We plant tulips in pots for great early color on our deck and then compost them as soon as they are done blooming. We don’t even bother to use potting soil, just regular garden soil for these. If you plant the flat side of the bulb facing out, the largest leaf will face in that direction.
Colchicums, which are in bloom now, can still be planted this time of year even though they are in bloom. They bloom while the bulb is still dormant but the foliage doesn’t emerge until spring. The bulbs grow and divide quickly and so naturalize easily. They are relatively expensive only because their growth cycle gives them such a short sales season.
Alliums (members of the onion family) are a wonderful addition to any garden, trouble-free, and naturalize readily because they easily divide at the bulb. The Globemaster variety is tall with a large, showy, long-lasting bloom.
More information can be found through the WSU Snohomish County Extension website in the Home and Garden section under “Gardening Resources” at snohomish.wsu.edu. Or you can call the Master Gardener Hotline at 425-357-6010 weekdays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.