Strange as it may sound, this is the time of year to think spring and plant bulbs for spring enjoyment. I know some of you may be a little burned out on gardening after the long hot summer, but just think of the smile that will be on your face when those first bright colorful spring flowers appear after a long winter. Early spring flowering bulbs are just such a part of my spring landscape. I can’t picture my landscape without them.
It can be a bit discouraging when your bulbs don’t produce that vibrant display that they once did the first few years after they were planted, but it’s just a hard fact that many bulbs, especially tulips, lose their vigor after a few years and need to be replanted. I think it’s definitely worth the effort though.
Understanding a little bit about bulbs and their history might be helpful in knowing their likes and dislikes. I think most people assume bulbs are natives of Holland, but they’re not. Tulips are actually native to the high mountain regions of a broad geographical area extending from Central Asia into Greece and up to Spain. Granted, these “wild” tulips don’t look a lot like the hybrid tulips that we’re used to seeing, but they’re still pretty interesting flowers.
Did you know there are about 150 species of these “wild” tulips? The Turks were cultivating tulips as early as 1,000 A.D. In fact, the tulip became a popular symbol of wealth and power for the Ottoman sultans. They thought the shape of the tulip resembled a turban, leading to the word ‘tulipa’ (Latin for tulip). The word was derived from the Persian word ‘tulipan’ which means turban. Daffodils are actually from Spain and Portugal. These areas receive a lot of moisture in the winter and are relatively dry during the summer months. When you think about it, our landscape is often very dry in the winter, and we pour irrigation to it during the summer. This is exactly opposite of their native environment.
So you may be wondering how Holland became the hub of the bulb industry? Long story made short: In 1593 a botanist named Carolus Clusius was working at the University of Leiden in Holland. His work took him to Vienna where he met De Busbecq, who was the ambassador to the court of the Sultan Suleiman in Constantinople. De Busbecq gave Clusius some tulip bulbs from Central Asia. Clausis brought the bulbs back with him to Holland and rest is literally history.
So, with all that said, if you’re buying some of the many fantastic hybrid bulbs, look for good quality bulbs that are firm and free of defects, such as mold or signs of green growth. Larger bulbs will produce larger flowers, but this may not always be better. A smaller tulip bulb will multiply more rapidly than a larger bulb, so it all depends on what you want from your bulbs.
I know many of us have to plan our gardens around the appetite of hungry deer or rabbits. So, for the most part, I plant daffodils and allium, and critters never seem to bother them. But, let me clear up any confusion that you might have regarding the difference between daffodils, Narcissus and jonquils. The official botanical name of the whole genus is Narcissus. Daffodil is the common name. Jonquil is a species name within the Narcissus genus. This means that certain daffodils are called Narcissus jonquilla. So when you’re using the common name, all colors, sizes and types are called daffodils. If you get into the botanical or Latin names, they all begin with Narcissus (the genus) and end with a different species name. (I hope that helps.)
Most bulbs aren’t too fussy and will do well in full sun or partial shade. The only thing bulbs ask is that they don’t stand in waterlogged areas, which is usually not a problem in our area. The soil for your bulbs should be amended at least 6 inches deeper than the depth of the bulb’s root zone. As a general rule, bulbs should be planted three to four times the depth of the bulb. For example, a 2-inch tulip bulb should be planted at a depth of 6 inches (measured from the shoulder of the bulb). An exception to this rule would be crocus or other small bulbs. These should be planted only two to three inches deep. The point, or tip of the bulb, should be facing upward when you plant it. If you can’t figure out which end is up on your bulb, plant it on its side. This is better than planting it upside down.
All bulbs require high levels of phosphorus. Unfortunately, phosphorus does not translocate in our clay soils, so it must be placed at the root zone during the time of planting in order to be effective. If you’re planting bulbs individually, just add a small amount of fertilizer to the bottom of each hole and place a little soil over the fertilizer to keep the bulb from coming into direct contact with it, which could burn delicate roots. Oh, and don’t let your bulbs sit out in the sun before you plant them.
Planting the bulb deeper than recommended and applying a thick layer of mulch to the bed (after the ground has frozen) will delay blooming time. This could be beneficial when bulbs are planted next to foundations with southern exposures because soils in these areas warm early, often causing an early emergence of the bulb that usually freezes the blooms.
Even though this is the ideal time to plant your bulbs, if you can’t get them planted for a while, don’t worry. Bulbs can be planted until the ground freezes. They just may flower later in the spring, and the stems might be shorter than usual, but they should do fine.
Next spring, once the flowers have faded, the spent flowers should be cut off. The foliage, however, should be allowed to die back naturally to provide energy for next year’s flowers.
I think it’s fun to tuck a few bulbs into small spaces to brighten the area, or they can be planted in masses for a dramatic welcoming of spring. They can even be added to an established garden to bring some new excitement to the area. I’m thinking, why not plant your bulbs where they can be enjoyed by passersby as well as from views inside the house into the garden? I always love to see my flowering bulbs when I look out my kitchen or living room window.
I know that putting a little effort into landscaping now is really going to pay off in the spring. So I’m off to plant some bulbs. I hope you will too. Happy gardening.
Linda Corwine McIntosh is a licensed commercial pesticide applicator, certified ISA arborist and advanced Colorado master gardener.