Bulbs: A Bright Idea Now for Next Spring

Fall is the time to plant for spring beauty in your garden.

My mailbox has been blooming[1] with bulb catalogues for the past few weeks. Lovely color photos of daffodils, tulips, scilla and grape hyacinths are spread out like a bouquet across every horizontal surface of my kitchen.  

Like many of my other gardening friends, I have been busy cutting back perennials and otherwise getting the garden ready for its winter rest, but I have seized a few minutes each day to peruse the bulb catalogues for spring bloom ideas.

It seems counterintuitive as we diligently work to put our gardens to bed, but autumn is the time to choose and plant spring blooming bulbs. Spring blooming bulbs need to be planted several weeks before the ground freezes in order to become well established.  

They must not be planted too early — if you plant them while the soil is too warm, you risk having them begin to sprout and deplete some of the energy stored in the bulbs resulting in a less robust bloom in the spring. Or worse yet, the warm soil might foster the growth of fungus or disease on the bulbs. But any time between mid-October to late-November should be good timing for planting bulbs.

Bulbs can be planted in sweeping drifts or among other plants in the garden bed. If you are planting en masse, dig a trench to a depth of three times the diameter of the bulbs you are planting--for most daffodils that would be six to eight inches deep. The depth for tulips might vary from five to eight inches. Plant the bulbs pointed side up. Make sure not to crowd the bulbs--this will make it easier for the bulbs to grow and avoid the need to divide over-crowded beds later on.  

If you are planting bulbs among other perennials in the garden, it is best to use a bulb planter to dig a hole for each bulb and make the hole a couple of inches deeper than the recommended planting depth.

Whichever method you use, I recommend sprinkling kelp meal or greensand in the bottom of the hole prior to planting the bulbs. Many growers recommend bone meal, but I believe this encourages squirrels and other rodents to infiltrate the area.

Spring blooming bulbs such as crocus, scilla (squill), snowdrops, grape hyacinth (muscari) and daffodils (narcissus) will return each year in the Northern Virginia area, and will multiply quickly. Tulips are a bit more problemmatic--I treat them as annuals and replant each year. Some gardener friends have more luck than I.

Most flowering plants love sun, but spring flowering bulbs can adapt to woodland areas as long as the trees are deciduous. The gardener can have flowers in an area that will enjoy mostly foliar interest through the rest of the growing season. If you do plant bulbs in these shady areas, fertilize them after the first year of bloom.

This year my goal is to achieve a progression of blooms. In the spring, my garden blooms with yellow and white daffodils and tulips counterpoised against lovely purple crocus and grape hyacinth. In the past few years, however, I have noticed they all seem to bloom towards the early part of spring and fade away. This year I am ordering Narcissus White LionNarcissus Wave and a peony flowered tulip, Creme Upstar, in the hope that my garden will continue its color scheme well into May.

I would encourage every gardener to leaf[2] through the catalogues for ideas, and splurge a bit this autumn to allow for a colorful wake-up from what is forecast to be a very grey and snowy winter.

Spring blooming bulbs are shipped from wholesale growers in mid-October. There seem to be as many bulb catalogues as there are bulb varieties. A few of my favorite growers are Brent and Becky's Bulbs White Flower Farm, K.Van Bourgondien & SonsVan Engelen, Inc. and John Scheepers, Inc.

As an alternative to the catalogues, gardeners in Northern Virginia have the luxury of being able to buy bulbs from local nurseries such as Merrifield Garden CenterJohnson's Garden CenterCampbell and Ferrara Nursery and Behnke Nurseries to name a few. Some of these nurseries have special sales on spring flowering. Click on any of the links provided to find the sales. 

To paraphrase a currently popular commercial advising homeowners that autumn is a good time to “feed your lawn,” now is also the time to plant your bulbs…plant them.

[1] Pun intended.

[2] No pun intended.


Eleni Silverman is a Master Gardener, President of the Belle Haven Garden Club, Chair of the Landscape Committee at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology and author of the garden blog "Belle Haven Garden Maven." She is sole proprietor of The Well Tended Garden, providing garden grooming, coaching and design.  She admits to a fascination with all things gardening, believes even compost is engaging, and will eagerly discuss the relative merits of leaf mold versus hardwood mulch.


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