Gardeners are legendary for being known as the ultimate optimists. We have recently started the harvest season and already we are thinking of spring bulbs. Although it is time to purchase bulbs it is not time to plant. Fall planted bulbs for spring bloom are on the market now but sell out quickly from on-line catalogs and from local sources.
Bulbs take root best when the soil temperature has registered between 40 and 50 degrees over a period of several weeks. Recommendations for catalog sales are to open the box and inspect the bulbs. Store with good circulation, low humidity and away from heat, frost and strong sunlight. A temperature between 50 to 70 degrees is best. When purchasing bulbs locally, look for bulbs that look fresh. They should be plump and firm and not show signs of decay or broken buds. Open anything wrapped in plastic or paper to allow air circulation and spread the bulbs out in a single layer. Choices of bulbs should be made for our Central Oregon growing zones of USDA 2 to 5. It’s not uncommon for busy gardeners to forget to plant, plan on reminding yourself. If you want blooms in the spring, plant in the fall, it may be nippy but as long as the ground isn’t frozen you can still plant.
If deer are a problem, forget tulips. Tulips are like candy for them. I have tried planting tulips away from their normal traffic pattern and behind some bushes but their radar pointed them in the right direction and in one feeding anything that vaguely looked like a tulip was chewed down.
Better choices that are classified as deer-resistant include snowdrops — galanthus, crocus, scilla, daffodils, grape hyacinth, fritillaria, dutch iris, allium and giant allium.
If you are deer-free the following would be good choices to include: windflower — anemone, tulips and hyacinth.
Many of the listed choices are available in early-, mid- and late-blooming seasons. With proper planning, you can enjoy months of color. A bulb planting is more impressive if multiple bulbs of the same variety are planted in a group rather than planted like soldiers in a straight row. If you are thinking of planting all three stages of bloom of one variety, plant the earliest variety in the back, then mid-season and late-blooming to the front. The dying foliage will be somewhat camouflaged with the freshest blooms. You can also plant perennials intermingled with the bulbs to act as a screen, which in addition provides bulb protection during hot summer temperatures.
Blubs prefer a growing environment of full sun and a well-drained soil. Be aware that bulbs planted on the south side of the house near the foundation may encourage premature emergence resulting in possible frost damage during our usual “false spring” in February and March. It’s not unusual to register high 60 degree temperatures during the day, then dropping to 20 degrees at night. We get excited, but it only lasts a week so resist buying seedlings.
Bulbs are planted four to five times the height of the bulb between the tip of the bulb and top of the soil with the growing tip (pointy side) up. Mixing in a soil amendment (⅓ to ½) will improve the native soil. Commercial bulb fertilizers are complete and balanced, follow the directions. If you can’t find a dedicated bulb fertilizer, choose a formula that is highest in phosphorus (the second number). Phosphorus does not move through the soil and needs to be applied at the time of planting so that it is available to the roots. Water in well. Existing bulb beds should be fertilized in early spring at first emergence of the foliage and again after bloom. After a good hard freeze and the ground is frozen, add a covering of 3 to 4 inches of mulch to help prevent bulbs from freezing and thawing. After the bloom, please resist the temptation to remove the dying foliage as that is the transporter of nutrition to the bulb for the next season.
“It is a greater act of faith to plant a bulb than to plant a tree.” Clare Leighton, “Four Hedges.”