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Spring Bulbs ~ The hows and whys and what to do's

I don’t know about you, but I wish my flower beds were crammed full of these promises of hope wrapped up brilliant color! Nothing makes us sigh with relief like spring bulbs in flower, does it? Okay, maybe finding out that we’re getting tax money thanks to some deductions, instead of owing it. (Yep, that’s what I’m supposed to be working on as I’m writing this. But I promised to blog, so here I am.)

So, it’s spring. The bulbs were supposed to go in the ground last fall. And you wish you had done more then. But that was then, and this is now. So, we’re going to do this backwards. First, I’ll tell you what to do with the bulbs you have out there in your yard now while they’re planted and flowering, and then we’ll follow up with what to do going forward, and through until next spring, when hopefully you’ll not only have planted more bulbs, but the ones you have now will be back, blooming better than ever.

So, I’ve come up with some common questions and answers that you may have. I hope this helps! Be sure to bookmark this, to come back next year, or in the fall.

How do I care for my flowering bulbs while they’re blooming?

There isn’t much to do while they are in flower, except water them once a week if you haven’t had measurable rain. Do this until the foliage dies back. Avoid watering them in the summer if possible. You can lightly fertilize them after the flowers are gone and before the leaves die. See below for instructions.

What should I do after the blooms have faded or wilted?

Wilted flower heads and their stems can be pinched off (deadheaded) and that helps the plant to use the energy absorbed by the remaining leaves to make better bulbs for next year. Healthy bulbs will make new bulbs, growing onto the original bulb. Leave the leaves (ahem, pun intended) for at least six to eight weeks before cutting them back or mowing them. That gives them adequate time to send nutrients down to the bulbs. (It’s best not to tie them in a knot, as they don’t get as much sunlight.) I’ve often wondered about what the inside of a house look likes where the gardener feels such a need to organize leaves outside . . . .

When and how should I fertilize bulbs?

You can fertilize in the spring, although your main effort to fertilize should be in the fall. In the spring, use liquid or water-soluble fertilizer just as they are emerging from the ground, and then again between the time that the flowers have faded but while the leaves are still green. Go easy for the spring feeding.

When you first plant the bulbs put fertilizer under the bulbs, with a soil cushion between the fertilizer and the bulbs to protect them from fertilizer burn. A little goes a long way.

In the fall, use a general purpose 10-10-10 or 10-15-10 slow-release soluble fertilizer at a ratio of 2 tablespoons to 2 cups of bonemeal. This is enough to cover a 10-square-foot area of planted bulbs. (And this is the heavy feeding!) Apply this to the top of the soil. Do not dig up the soil to mix it in, but the surface can be raked, although that sometimes results in an uneven distribution. It is perfectly acceptable to mulch over your bulbs. They can also appreciate coffee grounds, bearing in mind that the grounds are slightly acidic. Water after applying the fertilizer.

Should I dig them up, or leave them in the ground?

Some bulbs will be hardy year after year and don’t need to leave the ground to thrive. Daffodils, scilla and alliums, will multiply and bloom year after year. Other bulbs, such as tulips, put on their best show the first season and then gradually decline. It’s a sad fact of life. And speaking of life ~ have you ever noticed that old ruins of houses in the spring will often be surrounded by daffodils? It’s enough to make me want to plant daffodils and forget tulips altogether! Especially with the squirrel population using military tactics to disinter every single tulip bulb I’ve ever planted. Apparently, tulip bulbs are very tasty. To squirrels.

Can I eat them?

The debate is on if the leaves and bulbs are poisonous to humans, although it is a fact that Hollanders dug bulbs up to eat when starvation threatened. From my research, it sounds like you’d better know which ones you can eat and how to prepare them. As for cats, that’s a different story. Try not to let them near tulips.

Why should I dig up my bulbs, and how, and when?

The bulbs that aren’t as hardy as daffodils will slowly stop producing flowers, and the flowers will become less intense in color with each year after the first. If you really want a brilliant and full bed of tulips, it will require planting newly purchased ones each fall.

You can extend the life of your tulips and other bulbs by faithfully deadheading and fertilizing, of course.

There are some advantages to taking them out of the ground:

• You can examine them for disease and get rid of those bulbs and some of the soil surrounding them.

• The baby bulbs attached to the original bulb can be broken off and planted in the fall to become a separate plant.

• When you replant them in the fall, you are able to fertilize beneath them and put them into freshly amended soil, which will be less compact than the undisturbed soil they would be in if left in the ground.

There are also disadvantages:

• It’s a lot of work to dig them up! You have to loosen the soil around the plant with a garden fork, and then maybe a shovel, but in any event, you’re going to end up on your hands and knees shifting through soil, looking for bulbs. Some people throw the old bulbs in the compost heap, probably out of frustration.

• You need to store them in very specific conditions, which aren’t easily attainable ~ especially the dry part. The advice is to store them away from sunlight in a cool, dry basement, cellar, garage or shed at 60° to 65°F. Avoid temperatures below 50° or above 70°F unless different instructions are given for specific bulbs. So, what do you do when your garage or shed can’t meet those temps and your basement is too damp?

• It’s even more work to replant them!

How should I prepare my bulbs for storage until fall?

Healthy bulbs of a good size will be most likely to flower the following year, smaller ones will either not develop into full sized bulbs, or they will take a few more years to bloom. Discard damaged or diseased bulbs. Lay the bulbs on a tray to dry for at least 24 hours, to help prevent fungal rot. Put the bulbs in labelled paper bags or nets and store in a dry, cool place. Open a few bags occasionally to check for rot or disease, and destroy any that could spread the disease to others in storage.

Can I plant bulbs in pots? Can I store bulbs in soil in pots?

Yes, you can do this. But there are a few things to consider:

• A pot is a cramped and stressful environment for your flower bulbs so it's important to get the watering right. Make sure the potting soil is thoroughly soaked when you plant your bulbs and don't allow it to dry out as it can be difficult to rewet it properly.

• For over-wintering: Plant them in small 6-inch or 8-inch plastic pots and keep them under protection outdoors (in a cold frame, for instance) or in a cold garage. Or mulch heavily over them for winter protection. In the spring, as they start to bloom, you can then sink the stored pots into larger display containers.

What should I remember when it’s time to plant bulbs in the fall?

• Where you put the bulbs you stored last year or purchased in advance!

• Soil is everything to any kind of plant, and bulbs are no exception. The best kind of soil for planting bulbs is sandy loam – a balanced mix of clay, sand, silt, and organic matter.

• Planting depth means more to a bulb than to most plants. Use a ruler! That’s why so many bulb diggers have measurements on them! A bulb planted too shallow will produce leaves with no flowers, too deep and it won’t emerge.

• Place fertilizer below the bulb, with a bit of soil between the fertilizer and the bulb.

• A layer of metal grid with holes smaller than the bulbs might protect your bulbs from squirrel miners, but it will need to be large enough to cover well beyond the bulbs. I’ve watched a team of squirrels not only dig up, but roll up an eighteen inch by four-foot length of wire grid to dig out an entire tulip bed while I watched from my living room window. At minus 5 degrees, I didn’t have the nerve to try to stop them! And it was fodder for an entire story, to be included in my upcoming book. I can still see their leader, barking orders at the line-up of soldiers, while he held his little paws under his armpits to keep them warm, when he wasn’t waving one arm or the other to give directions.

• You don’t need to soak the bulbs before you plant them in the fall, or afterwards, for that matter. However, you can soak them for 12-24 hours to speed up the rooting process.

I didn’t find time to plant my bulbs in the fall! Is it too late?

As long as the ground is workable, you can still plant, as late as January.

Can I plant other things around or even over my bulbs?

Yes! Planting perennials near the bulbs, or ground cover over the bulbs works great. You can use your flowering bulbs as protection. You’ll know not to dig in the area and accidently dig up a prized perennial. Daylilies work especially well at disguising the dying leaves of your bulbs, as the leaves are similar and tend to arch over the bulb leaves as they fade away.

This isn’t everything there is to know and learn about spring bulbs, but it’s a start in the right direction. There's a wealth of information out there on the internet, and some of it is conflicting, like whether it will kill you to eat bulbs, and

whether or not you should risk your flower beds with "broken tulips." A fascinating quandary, that one, and I can see the temptation! The breeding of bulbs and plants down through history and still today is full of mystery and intrigue and worthy of the most avid Sherlock fan.

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