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Spring Bulb Planting and Protection Tips
Here's How to Plant Your PrettiesPerfectly—and Prevent MaraudingMammals from Plundering the Plots

Q. Dear Mike: I love your show!Now: You've been saying not to plantSpring bulbs yet "because they might sprout". When WILL it be safe toplant? Everyone I ask gives me a different answer. It seems from whatyou've been saying that the best time is after the first frost butbefore the ground is frozen. Is this correct? Should I water after Iplant? And do you recommend planting in a container?  I havedaffodil and tulip bulbs. Thanks,

Dear Mike: This year I finally went out and bought hyacinth and tulipbulbs. But I can't remember how I'm supposed to put them in the ground.They look like little garlics. Do they go pointy side up or down? I'm new at this and I'd appreciate your help. Thank you,
            ---Gemma inPhiladelphia(Roxborough)

A.    Thank YOU,ladies—because that time is nigh! Now,even. At least it's 'now' in the greater Philadelphia area—as well aseverywhere North of Philly and South down to the Carolinas. (Listenersin the deeper South should wait till after Thanksgiving.)

The basic goal is to get your bulbs in the ground six weeks before thatground freezes hard for the season. That gives the bulbs time to putdown a good root system, but not enough time to sprout and threaten theSpringtime show.

And if you live in one of those oh-so-warm climes where the groundDOESN'T freeze, go to the official site of the Netherlands Flower BulbInformation Center, www.bulb.comfor suggestions and special instructions. (Here's a direct link totheir warm weather tips section:x.)Oh, and asalways---a big pppfffttt!! to youse out there who are too timid to takea real winter! I'll send you some of my ice storms in January, OK?

Basics: Bulbs should be planted around eight inches deep for big ones,five inches for small ones, or about twice their height—that is, thereshould be room for another bulb on top. (But don't put another bulb ontop, of course; fill that area with soil instead.) Loosen up the soilunder the bulb so those roots can get established easily. Don't feedthem yet—just add some compostto the planting hole. (The time to feedbulbs is right after they flower in the Spring). And yes, Nancy, dowater—to facilitate that all-important root growth.

Containers? Not if you plan to leave them outdoors in the North (see"ForceSpring bulbs indoors" at Gardens Alive's YBYGarchivesfor details.) And Gemma: If the bulbs—like your tulips and stinkyhyacinths—havedistinctive points, that's the top, which should faceup. Some bulbs, however (like crocus)don't have such easy indicators.Take your best shot, and if unsure which end is up, lay the bulbs ontheir sides, which will allow the stalk to grow up from either end. Butdon't worry—most bulbs will bloom even if you plant them upsidedown!   

Q. Mike: Squirrels always tryand eat my wife's Spring bulbs. We covered the garden with heavy gaugechicken wire, but now the squirrels are digging sideways.  Help!
            ---Rob inPhiladelphia 

How do I protect my bulbs from squirrels and chipmunks? I do have tothank these creatures for several plants that have 'wandered' into mygardens over the last few years but I don't want them to eat my bulbsor carry them off. I also have a very sunny spot in the back of thehouse that is very wet. Are there any bulbs I could plant there?
            ---Marian inWoodbury, NJ

A.    Theeasiest vermin-vexing answer is to plant bulbs that are unattractive topests because they're toxic or just plain taste awful. Daffodils,fritillaries and ornamental alliumsare the best known, but there aremany others. has acomplete list: (x)And no—that list does NOT include tulipsand crocussessess;everyplant-eating creature in the animal world finds them to be tasty anddelicious.

Many people protect their bulbs by covering the bed with chicken wire;the fencing quickly vanishes into the dirt, but still prevents attackfrom above. As Rob discovered, however, squirrels can be persistentlittle tree rats—and bulb-eating voles attack from below. A moreabsolute defense is to plant the bulbs in wire cages that protect themfrom all sides. (Our listeners in gopher territory will be all-toofamiliar with this trick.)  Make the cages bigger than they haveto be, and place the bulbs in the center, surrounded by dirt, so theycan't be gnawed from the outside. Or surround the bulbs with lots ofsmall sharp stones; a commercial product called "Vole Bloc" is soldjust for this purpose.

And it's vitally important to clean up completely after you're doneplanting.  Leaving dried wrappers and other 'bulb trash' on thesurface of the soil is like erecting a neon sign that says: "Hey kids,hungry for bulbs? Dig here!" For added insurance, spray some deerrepellant or one of those castor oil products sold to repelmoles,voles, and gophers over top when you're done—or spread cayennepowderor crushed hot pepper flakes on top of the soil to thoroughly disguisethe scent.

And "our gal Sal"—Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb InfoCenter—adds not to apply mulch right away. Our listeners South of thePhilly area don't need to mulch at all, and our Northern friends shouldwait till after the soil freezes hard. Mulching too early, warns Sally,provides attractive cover for bulb-eating vermin. (And ALL mulchesshould be applied after the soil freezes hard, no matter what kind ofplant life you're protecting.)

And yes, Marian: Sally also tells us that several Spring bulbs love wetfeet. One of the best is Leucojum ("the Spring Snowflake")—especiallyL. aestivum, which likes it REALLY wet. Some Fritillaria also like itdamp—especially F. meleagris (aka the "snake's head lily").You mightalso enjoy wet success with Camassia (the only Native American bulb;our nation's indigenous inhabitants called it Quamash).

And Sally adds that a surprising number of summer blooming bulbs (likecannalilies) also love wet feet. But—as the overworked Mohelsaid—that's a tip for another day.

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2005Mike McGrath

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