Growing Spring-Blooming Bulbs

By Sally Cogdill

            After the gray, dreary days of winter, a dazzling display of springtime bulbs is a joy to treasure.  However, if you want tulips, daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths or other bulbs to bloom in your garden in spring, you must plant them in fall. 

Bulbs must have sufficient time to establish a root system, and they also need to experience a chilling period.  As a result, they won’t produce flowers until the following year if you plant them in late winter or early spring.  (Note: As commonly used, the word “bulb” refers to true bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes and is used that way here.)

It’s a good idea to survey your yard before heading off to purchase bulbs.  It is essential that the sites you select for the bulbs have good drainage.  Bulbs will rot in soggy soil.  Most bulbs perform best is a sunny location.  Because deciduous trees and shrubs won’t have leaves when the bulbs come into bloom, shade from them won’t be a problem.

Next, you need to decide what bulbs you want to plant in each locale.  For a succession of color, plant bulbs that bloom at different times in spring: early spring, mid spring and late spring.  Labels and catalogs provide this information.  For visual impact use plenty of bulbs in each area that you plant.  Ten bulbs is a suggested minimum.  Some gardeners prefer to use only one type of bulb and only one color in each area; for example, only pink tulips.  Others prefer to use one type of bulb planted in bands of color, such as a band of red tulips beside a band of yellow tulips.  Another approach that is effective in small pockets and containers is to create a mixed bouquet of different kinds and/or colors of bulbs.  For example, you could plant a group of tulips that are various shades of purple, lavender, pink and white together.   While planning, you should also estimate approximately how many bulbs of each type you want.

For the best selection, buy bulbs as soon as they become available at garden centers or home improvement stores in late August or early September.  Plump, healthy-looking bulbs that are the largest of their type will produce the best blooms.  Avoid bulbs that are moldy or ones that have soft or bruised spots, or other blemishes.

You should plant the bulbs in late September or early October after the soil temperature has cooled.  If planted too early, the bulbs may begin to sprout right away.  On the other hand, you need to plant them early enough so they’ll have time to establish a good root system before the ground freezes.

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Planting the bulbs at the proper depth is vital.  In Colorado, roller coaster ups and downs in temperature create freeze/thaw cycles that can damage bulbs that aren’t planted deep enough.  Warm days in winter prompt shallow-planted bulbs to sprout and bloom too early, making them susceptible to damage from spring’s heavy snows.  To avoid these problems, pick up the planting instructions for the bulbs you select so you’ll know how deep to plant them.  

There are two methods used to plant bulbs.  One method is to excavate the flowerbed to the correct planting depth for the bulbs being planted.  Spread a layer of compost or other organic matter over the bed.  Also add super phosphate or a fertilizer for bulbs.  Thoroughly till the soil amendment and fertilizer into the soil where the roots will be growing.  This will improve drainage, improve the soil’s texture, and stimulate root development.  Position the bulbs, with the pointed end up, in the area as desired.  Amend the soil that was excavated with compost and then fill in the flowerbed.  The other method is to use a tool to dig a hole.  Several types of tools for digging the holes are on the market.  Loosen up the soil at the bottom of the hole, add a bit of compost and bulb fertilizer, and mix them into the loosened soil.  Place the bulb, pointed end up, in the hole.  Mix some compost with the soil from the hole and then fill it.  As soon as the bulbs have been planted water them thoroughly.

Once planted, the bulbs require little care.  Water the beds occasionally in fall and winter if there is little or no rain or snow for several weeks.  When the ground has frozen, the bulb beds should be covered with a 3” thick layer of mulch to help maintain a more constant temperature.  In spring, cut off dead flowers so they don’t waste energy forming seeds.  If you want the bulbs to produce flowers again the following year, do not cut off the leaves until they are completely dead.  This can be very tempting because the plants do look tacky as the leaves yellow and die.  Because the leaves produce food that is stored in the bulb for the next season’s growth you need to let them complete this process.  You can plant leafy annuals or perennials in the beds to camouflage the unsightly foliage.

Daffodils, crocuses and other bulbs will spread and bloom for several years.  While laboring to plant them in fall, keep in mind that in the coming years your labor will be repeatedly rewarded.  Your springtime garden will be a delight.