Planting bulbs now will bring years of beautiful bloom times

by Jan Spann

Spring bulbs peek at us from under the drab winter gardenscape, and these harbingers remind us that more garden flowers will soon beckon us outdoors.

Early spring is a good time to plant some bulbs. Make sure your garden has had several days of warmth and no rain so the soil is not frozen or wet, as the bulbs will most likely rot in these conditions.

Whether you buy locally or online, look for bulbs that fit Central Arkansas Zone 7 heat, as many bulbs are grown in cooler climates of North America and Europe. Make sure the bulbs are firm to the touch, which indicates they are healthy. If you haven’t tried a variety that interests you, start with a small investment the first year to see how the plant works under your garden’s microclimate.

Pick a bulb that suits your purpose. Daffodils (also known as narcissus or jonquils) are not fussy, which makes it a good choice to use when introducing children to the garden. The bulbs multiply each year, and daffodils must be divided every six years or so, making them a great pass-along plant. Their generous bounty also makes the daffodil the perfect choice for naturalizing large areas. With more than 25,000 registered cultivars, most are in the white and yellow range with orange and even green tinges.

For dramatic color, tulips win the prize. These beautiful flowers come in a wide variety of leaf shape, petal size and many colors. Because Central Arkansas winters are too warm and summers too hot, tulips are generally planted as annuals or dug up and stored. Dahlias are another colorful choice where the bulbs must be dug up before winter and stored in a cool place until time to replant in spring. Be sure to mark the bulbs’ location so you can find them in the fall.

Scatter bulbs for naturalized plantings over large areas or around your garden instead of making rows, and allow room for them to spread. If you have a formal garden plan, mass bulbs by type, color or height, but try not to have too orderly rows. Other bulbs that work well in this freestyle include the small but delightful crocus, hyacinth, snowdrop and fritillaria. Since most of these pop up before trees leaf out, the choice of sun or shade doesn’t matter as much.

Reliable choices for shade areas include Italian arum (the foliage will die back in the heat of summer but will return to bloom again in spring), and this lovely plant can pop up in January with the foliage to follow in a few months. As their names imply, surprise lily and naked lady lily are two varieties that have no foliage and will pop up at unexpected times to grace your garden with spidery blooms. Shade-loving bulbs like caladium should be planted later after danger of frost is past.

Fritillaria bulbs should be planted sideways to prevent the stem hole in the bulb from trapping water that could cause bulb rot. Foliage dies back by early summer as the bulbs go dormant.

The bulbs are large but fragile and are best left undisturbed once planted. The May-June blooms can take full sun to partial shade for late afternoon heat.

For sun gardens, you’ll find colorful choices in Asiatic and oriental lilies. Gladioli graced our grandmothers’ gardens and will bloom well into our hot summers. Extend the bloom season by planting a few corms every two to three weeks. You may need to stake these lanky beauties and anchor them by not planting the corms too shallowly.

Your garden even has some bulbs for fall color. Try Resurrection lily (Amaryllis belladonna) or autumn crocus. The rose pink lily is also fragrant and naturalizes easily. While the spring crocus is in the iris family, this fall crocus falls in its own family (Colchicaceae).

If you don’t plan to naturalize, here are the steps for planting spring bulbs. Loosen the soil below and around the site where the bulb will go. Most bulbs will be okay if planted a bit above the recommendation, but bulbs planted too deep will be in trouble. A general rule is to plant any bulb at a depth at twice its height, except for oriental or Asiatic lilies, which must be planted three to four times deeper. Make sure there are no air pockets around the bulb’s bottom, as water can settle here and cause bulb rot.

Add a bit of organic compost or humus, then place the bulb at the appropriate depth. If your soil is a bit heavy (it’s hard or difficult to break up), add sand with the other amendments and mix well. Cover the bulbs with soil and press down soil firmly. Don’t fertilize the hole, as it can hurt the tender new shoots. Instead fertilize, and then water bulbs immediately after planting.

Although they can’t bear wet feet, bulbs need water to trigger growth. You can use special fertilizer for bulbs — a tomato mix rich in potassium or superphosphate.

For the neat gardeners, bulbs can challenge their desire to clean up the foliage immediately after bloom. Bulbs rebuild their food reserves for the next season, and the leaves transform sunlight into the plant’s food. You must wait until the leaves are brown and dry and have done their job. To conceal the dying foliage, plant bulbs with perennials or other later-blooming bulbs.

A garden hand trowel will work just fine, but since bulb varieties should be planted at specific depths, invest in a hand trowel with inch markers. If you are naturalizing a large area, a good choice would be a long-handled transplanter with a sharp edge and foot platform. This tool makes a wedge in the soil where you drop in a bulb, and pat the soil back after removing the spade.

The economy of work with this tool makes planting lots of bulbs much easier. Both of these functional tools can be found at most garden centers, or Google specialty companies like Lee Valley Tools or Ames Tools.

When you have cabin fever and are ready to head outdoors, planting bulbs can be a fun family occasion.