Where to plant bulbs

Bulbs are some of the least demanding of all plants, but they appreciate your efforts to give them as good of a growing area as possible (with well-drained soil); they may reward your efforts with years of bountiful flowers.

Flowerbeds

Flowering bulbs are very happy in prepared flowerbeds. They receive the good, loose soil they relish and the elbow room they need. Here are two good approaches:

t Bedding schemes: Perhaps you've seen these beds in public display gardens: broad areas devoted to nothing but, say, tulips. The mass of color can be very impressive. You can prepare these flowerbeds at home. Pick a nice, open spot, choose a large amount of the same or very similar bulbs (in terms of color, height, and/or bloom time), and plant them fairly close together.

t Mixed beds: Bulbs are only part of the show in a mixed bed; they can share the stage with early-blooming perennials (Chapter 7), some colorful annuals (Chapter 6), and perhaps a few sheltering shrubs (Chapter 11). The overall show never declines: Whether you're waiting for the bulbs to burst into bloom or waiting for their fading foliage to die down, you always have something to look at and enjoy.

Containers

Growing bulbs in containers handily solves every display problem. Individual plants can get exactly the sort of soil and planting depth they prefer. When the bulbs come into bloom, you can place them front and center on your porch or patio or even tuck them into a flowerbed and enjoy them at their peak. You can turn or elevate the container to show off the flowers to best advantage. And when the blooms and foliage begin to fade away, you can move the plants out of sight and replace them with pots of fresh reinforcements.

Naturalizing: Plants gone wild

Naturalizing is just a gardening term (and a rather sensible one, actually) to describe bulbs usually planted in large informal drifts, where they remain undisturbed and multiply. You can naturalize in a grassy area, under fruit trees or other deciduous trees, at the edge of a wooded area, or on an embankment. You want a semiwild area, because the bulb foliage should be able to die down undisturbed after the plants finish blooming. Over time, the bulbs tend to increase their numbers, spreading out the show with each passing year, with virtually no effort from you.

To begin, invest in a large amount of good-quality bulbs. On planting day, literally toss them out over the chosen area and plant them where they land. This display ends up looking more spontaneous and, well, natural.

Something about a potful of blooming bulbs is so immediate and perky. They're right before your very eyes, cheerily delivering their jolt of color. You can line your front steps with them or place a pot in the middle of the patio table, like a living bouquet.

Pots dry out faster than garden-bed soil. Keep your potted bulbs watered. Consistent water (that is, every day or two instead only when the plants are gasping) leads to a healthier, longer-lasting show. Also, if you're in a cold climate, be sure to pot your bulbs in containers that can freeze without breaking, like plastic.

One drawback: In most climates, bulbs grown in containers are spent after one blooming cycle. If you enjoyed them, you have to start over next year with fresh new bulbs, unless the pot is large enough for the bulbs to go through their dormancy and remain in good health.

For ideas and tips for container gardening, consult Chapter 16.

How to plant bulbs

Planting bulbs is simple. But before you start, be sure the chosen spot has good, well-draining soil. Bulbs rot in soggy ground and struggle in sandy soil; the addition of some organic matter eases these problems considerably. Follow these planting steps for the best results:

If you're planting only a few bulbs or you're spot-planting (tucking bulbs in among other plants in a mixed bed), use a trowel. Various bulb planters are on the market, but frankly, I don't find them very useful unless the soil is loose. If you're planting lots of bulbs, break out the shovel and make a trench.

Not all bulbs are the same size, so not all bulbs should be planted the same depth. The general rule is three times as deep as the bulb's height. This guideline varies a bit based on your soil type. In sandier soils, you can plant a little deeper; in heavy clay soils, a little shallower. If you forget how deep to plant your bulbs, consult the supplier's label or catalog. Too shallow, and your bulbs may poke their heads above the soil surface too early and get damaged by wintry weather; too deep, and they'll take longer to emerge.

Roots grow out of the bottom of the bulb, so the quality of the soil underneath it is more important than what you pack the hole with. If you're amending the soil with organic material like compost or sphagnum moss (see Chapter 4), dig somewhat deeper-than-recommended holes so you can accommodate this addition.

Distance apart varies with the type of bulb and the sort of display you have in mind. If you crowd the bulbs underground, the eventual show may suffer. Certainly, don't let the bulbs touch one another. The general rule is at least three bulb-widths apart "on center" (from the center of one bulb to the center of the next). But experience can tell you what the bulbs you've chosen tolerate and how dense you like your displays.

2. Add a fertilizer.

Use a fertilizer that has a higher phosphorus number, such as a 5-10-5 fertilizer (see Chapter 4 for info on fertilizer grades). Phosphorus (the P in the N-P-K on fertilizer labels) is important for the root growth as well as flower production. Just sprinkle the fertilizer in the bottom of the hole and scratch it in so it mixes with the soil a bit. (For more on choosing and using fertilizer, see "Fertilizing your bulbs," later in this chapter.)

If the ground is bone dry, water a day or so before planting so the ground is damp but not muddy when you're planting the bulbs. If you want to wait to fertilize, you can scratch the fertilizer into the surface of the soil in the spring as the bulbs are growing.

You want the nose, or growing point, to point up and the roots, or basal plate from which they'll grow, to point down. (If you can't tell, plant the bulb on its side — the plant will figure it out in due course! Botanists call this nifty skill gravitropism.) Make sure the bottom of the bulb is in contact with soil; if you leave an air pocket, the roots can dry out and the bulb won't grow or won't grow very well.

4. Backfill and water.

As you scoop soil back into the hole, firmly press it in place to prevent air pockets. Water well (some settling will occur) and then add a bit more soil as needed.

Figure 8-9:

Securely place the bulb's basal plate against the bottom of the hole.

Indicate where you've planted your bulbs so you don't plant other flowers in the same place. Mark the locations with permanent nonrusting, nonrotting labels like those made of zinc or copper.

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