Planting bulbs in the fall yields spring surprises
Winter still had an icy grip on the garden after a brief thaw, when through the snow emerged the spectacular blue flowers of snow crocus, unaffected by the frigid temperatures. Even though I know where the flowers are planted, they are always a surprise. All it takes is a day or two in February as the angle of the sun rises to slightly warm the soil, signaling to the snow crocus that spring is here, even if it isn’t.
Those little flowers announce the start of another garden season and confirm that the endless winter is fading away, and spring is waiting patiently in the wings. Deprived of color for months, those flowers are why I plant bulbs. Well, it’s one of the reasons anyway. The beautiful and short-lived show begins with snowdrops and crocus continuing in earnest into summer as the last globes of alliums turn brown.
The big 4
Most early spring blooming bulbs are planted now, including the big four — crocus, tulip, daffodil and hyacinths. There are many other bulbs to plant that should have a place in your garden, too. Planting bulbs in the fall is a gardening tradition, but one that’s fading. Every year I see fewer bulbs being offered locally. I can’t imagine a fall without adding some bulbs to my landscape. It’s the kind of work that’s rewarded months down the road, but there’s nothing that compares to the beauty of these spring blooms. As I traverse western Pennsylvania speaking to groups this time of the year, I beg them to put some bulbs in the ground, and I’m begging you, too. You’ll be so happy when they bloom.
Bulbs are planted three times as deep as the bulb itself. In the case of a daffodil that’s substantial — 6 or 8 inches — but a tiny snowdrop only needs to be nestled into the ground an inch below the surface.
Get an auger
It was 30 years ago when I discovered a tool called a bulb auger. It’s a big drill bit that fits on any electric or battery-powered drill, and it makes bulb planting fun. Last year I bought a 20-volt, battery-powered drill for under $60 at my local hardware store. I wish I would have had one that powerful over the past decades for planting. For the past several years, I’ve used the Power Planter Bulb Auger. It’s indestructible, and it’s only 7 inches long, making the tool perfect for planting while kneeling or sitting. The hexagonal shaft prevents slipping while drilling.
I’ll buy what I need locally right now. I prefer to find bulbs in bins as I can sort through them for the biggest and firmest. When it comes to daffodils in particular, the end that produces a flower is called a nose. Some will have one, two or three noses — the more of them there are, the more flowers in spring. As the season progresses, bulbs will get cheaper, discounted to half price around Thanksgiving. They can be planted until the ground freezes solid.
I’ve been known to swoop into nurseries and buy everything they have left at a substantial discount.
When thinking about where to plant your bulbs, know that most need to dry out during the offseason. Hillsides, drip lines of trees and anywhere with well-drained soil is perfect. They’ll enjoy some sun as the foliage fades to return energy to the bulb. They can live for decades or longer in the same place.
There are great online stores, too, but be sure to deal with one that’s reputable, telling you the size of the bulbs you’re buying. Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, Old House Gardens, John Scheepers, Van Engelen, Longfield Gardens and Colorblends are a few I like, but there are plenty more good sources out there.
I bought some cool stuff last season during Old House Gardens’ Dutch auction. At the end of the shipping season, they put everything left on sale, reducing the price daily until they are gone. The company offers heirloom bulbs, and many are no longer available anywhere else and oftentimes have a fascinating history. If you’re interested in growing something wonderful and different, check them out.
Here’s my bulb primer with a list of fun things to grow.
Snowdrops — These small, pretty white flowers have bloomed as early as Jan. 15 in my garden. You never know when they will flower; it just depends on the winter. I like to plant them close to the house, as they will sprout a little earlier. I’m head over heels in love with the double flowering ‘Flore Pleno.’ Snowdrops will make a nice colony after a few years and are one of the few bulbs that like being divided right after blooming. They are also deer resistant and have never been molested in my garden.
Crocus — There are lots of different cultivars of crocus. One trick I recently learned from Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs is to soak the bulbs in a critter-repellent like Bobbex to keep the chipmunks from eating them. ‘Pickwick’ was released in 1939 and is a favorite for its blue-and-white striped flowers with luminous orange anthers.
Glory of snow — These low-growing blue flowers with white centers will spread over the years making a colorful montage quickly, blooming as the crocus finish. It’s deer resistant with some pink and white varieties available, too.
Puschkinia — One of the great things about gardening is discovering a new plant. I’m not sure where I got a hold of puschkinia bulbs last fall, but when the 8-inch tall white flowers with blue stripes emerged, I was hooked. Another deer-resistant colonizer, I’m planting a few more hundred this season.
Daffodils — There are 13 different divisions of daffs, each one with a different flower shape. These harbingers of spring are my favorites. Daffodil season is like no other, once they get going, there’s no turning back. I’ve fallen in love with doubles, counting ‘Tahiti,’ ‘Sir Winston Churchill’ (smells like gardenias), ‘Gay Tabor’ as just a few favorites. I’ve ordered some rare bulbs from Joe Hamm’s Daffodil Hortus in Washington County. There aren’t many things tougher than daffodils; they will thrive for years.
Tulips — These days I treat them as annuals and grow them in the fenced-in vegetable garden as they are a favorite food of the deer. The most perennial are Darwin varieties and species tulips.
Hyacinths — Not everyone one loves the fragrance of hyacinths like I do. A neighbor at work complained about the heavy perfume of the cut flowers in a vase. The next day they disappeared. Lesson learned, but these flowers might not be welcome at work, but are a must for filling the house with their wonderful aroma.
Fritillaria — It’s not seen in many gardens anymore, but they should be. Another deer-resistant plant, fritillaria has a wide range of cultivars. Three-foot tall ‘Crown Imperial’ puts on a show with orange flowers in consort with daffodils. There are a host of smaller varieties that deserve a place in the garden.
Alliums — Although said to be deer proof, I caught a small fawn tasting the foliage last spring. Probably best known for tall stems supporting purple globular flowers, this plant from the onion family can take on many shapes, colors, sizes and bloom times. I grew Allium caeruleum and some other cool sky blue varieties last season and loved them. Before the blooms opened, I mistakenly nibbled on a flower thinking it was chives. Luckily I figured out what the plant was before making a salad out of this pretty plant.
Lilies — Deer love them, so be careful when choosing a planting site. These tall plants are the queen of the summer garden, easy to grow and oftentimes intensely fragrant. Planting bulbs now builds anticipation for the spring. That’s what I’m thinking about as I spend an hour here and there on my knees drilling holes and dropping in the bulbs. As they sleep under the snow, we’re combing seed catalogs and dreaming of walking barefoot in the garden again.