Bulb-planting in the fall is always an act of hope. This year, it becomes a form of therapy. When the crocuses, daffodils, and tulips next flower, we will be assured of at least one thing: It won’t be 2020.
From a practical standpoint, it’s difficult to mess up with bulbs; they are little packages programmed to grow and bloom. All they need is some moisture and the enduring cold soil of winter to shoot up and flower early next year.
Even if you ignore the earliest bloomers — the snowdrops and aconites — carefully selected bulbs can give you a show that in the Mid-Atlantic begins in late February and endures until at least late May.
The next few weeks are the prime bulb-planting season, but these wee packets of spring can go in anytime before the ground freezes. I’d get to this sooner rather than later, though. In the hyper-domestic pandemic paradigm, many people are jumping on bulb-planting as a way of doing something for and around their homes, and varieties are selling out.
Crocuses launch a continuous and overlapping display, followed by daffodils and tulips and alliums (ornamental onions). This weeks-long parade is enlivened by specialty bulbs, which bloom in the following order, loosely: giant snowdrop, bulbous iris, common snowdrop, crocus, scilla, chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow), windflower and muscari (grape hyacinth). By variety, daffodils generally bloom from late February to late April, tulips from late March to early May, and most alliums in May to early June. Hyacinths bloom in early spring; I find them awkward in the garden but cheerful as indoor potted plants.
My long-standing advice has been to plant far more bulbs than you think is enough, so you can create drama in the garden. (The smaller the bulb, the more you should plant.) But Tim Schipper, owner of bulb retailer Colorblends, warns that a common mistake of new gardeners is to buy too many bulbs that never make it into the ground, because, well, bulbs don’t plant themselves.
"It's hard work," he said. "Take a smaller bite, see how it goes, don't try to get it all done in one year."
Bulbs are available from independent garden centers, mail-order bulb companies and other online retailers. Mass merchandizers are another source, but selection tends to be limited and the availability period short.
You can plant in large blocks or intersperse bulbs among existing perennials. The latter course is especially effective in spring-themed beds, where bulbs pop up between such things as hellebores, epimediums, creeping phlox, foam flowers, Virginia bluebells, Solomon’s seal, and ferns.
In recent years, I’ve found space in spare beds in the vegetable garden for extravagant tulip displays. The bulbs are lifted and discarded in May, and then the beds are used for summer vegetables. By crowding the tulips together — avoid having the bulbs touch — I can take plenty for the vase without affecting the show.
If you have blocks of perennials, such as hostas or day lilies, or expansive ground covers, you can achieve the same effect of a carpet of tulips by planting densely if carefully. Otherwise, it's a case of planting isolated clumps of spring bulbs in existing beds. The perennials, as they grow, mask the declining bulb foliage. Amid beefier perennials, you will need to plant taller bulbs, such as big daffodils and tulips and alliums, to elevate the show sufficiently.
Four-legged pests are always an issue with bulbs; a prime culprit right after planting is the squirrel. One trick is to plant the bulbs deeply — to six or seven inches — and cover with a little mulch to hide the disturbed soil. In smaller areas, an inch or two of pea gravel may provide a barrier.
Come spring, deer will regard tulips and crocuses as candy. Repellents will help, but the best remedy is to focus on daffodils and alliums, which both squirrels and deer find distasteful.
Here are some thoughts on planting tulips and daffodils, the two most favored bulbs.
Tulips. Many of the showy hybrid tulips are not reliably perennial, and those that return will probably be less vigorous. Their chances of returning are improved if they are grown in full sun and perfectly drained soil that is kept on the dry side in summer. I treat them as annual indulgences and yank them after blooming. Species-type tulips, sometimes called wild or botanical tulips, are low-growing and appear earlier. They usually come back year after year, especially if given a sunny site and good drainage. These include the wonderfully slender (and taller) clusiana varieties and the bakeri, humilis, praestans, tarda and turkestanica species. Common varieties include Lilac Wonder, Little Beauty and Little Princess.
Daffodils. Dainty, bloom-rich miniature varieties work beautifully in small garden beds and in areas with low-growing ground covers. They add a cheerfulness beyond their stature, recede with more decorum than their bigger brothers, and reflect the sophistication of the gardener. I put them in clumps of up to a dozen bulbs, each grouping a few feet apart. Look for Hawera, Geranium, Jetfire, Tête-a-Tête, Minnow, Sailboat and Avalanche, among others.
Most spring bulbs originate in arid regions and need well-drained conditions, especially when they are dormant in summer. They are not for soggy soil. If you have an irrigation system, your bulbs may rot away. Camassia, a native bulb, will take wetter conditions.
They also need sunlight to recharge themselves. A daffodil in partial shade will flower each year, but one in the heart of a deep woodland will peter out. For this reason, avoid beds right next to north-facing walls and fences.
Generally, larger bulbs are planted at about six inches (I go an inch or two deeper), and smaller ones at three to five inches. You want at least three inches of soil above the top of the bulb. I plant crocus bulbs as deeply as tulips to try to thwart the squirrels.
In theory, a bulb set askew will right itself. Trying to orient every little specialty bulb is tedious and unnecessary. But for bigger bulbs, do them a favor and try to set them with the growing point or nose upward.
Stay away from cheap trowels, which aren't up to the job. The common handheld bulb-planter is tough on the wrists, especially with heavy soil. Long-handled versions rely on leg muscles and are more effective.