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Planting—and Protecting—Spring Bulbs

Question: Mike: I adore Spring bulbs and have planted them many times—with little success thanks to moles (we've seen their holes). One year I planted 40 red tulips and only ONE tulip bloomed. Same with daffodils. I have had success with a few crocus (croci?) planted near our front door. They bloom every year. Is it hopeless to plant any other bulbs? Can I grow Spring bulbs in pots? Any advice is greatly appreciated.
    ---Donna in Marlton, New Jersey; a few minutes away from the Pine Barrens.
Answer. Well, the first thing I had to tell poor Donna is that any moles on her property are innocent. Moles make long tunnels in the ground whose top portions are visible, often disturbing lawns—but they don't eat or otherwise bother plants. Like most teenage boys, moles are 100% carnivorous; they'd starve before eating a plant. "Holes" in the ground and damaged or missing plants can mean voles (if the holes are small) or groundhogs (if the holes are large). Evil squirrels (sorry; that's redundant) are also notorious for digging holes—and they're the #1 cause of disappearing Spring bulbs.

I shared this info with Donna, who wrote back: "If I were Homer Simpson I would say "d'oh!" We have lots of squirrels in our fenced-in backyard. (A fence that HAD beautiful copper finials every few feet—before the squirrels gnawed them off!) I feel foolish - I had no idea that squirrels ate bulbs. I thought they were too busy eating the bird seed that fell out of our feeders. I apologize to the moles."

Don't feel bad Donna—it's a common mistake. And your response provides my first piece of advice: Stop feeding seed to your birds—at least from old-fashioned, squirrel-enabling feeders! As you note, your current feeders are attracting the squirrels making mischief with your bulbs.

And spilled seed provides food for voles—shrew-like pests that are the second biggest enemy of Spring bulbs. Voles are the opposite of moles—total vegetarians that ONLY eat plants (and lots of them!). Their appetites are enormous, they breed prodigiously and they flourish in yards with spilled birdseed—as do mice and rats. So switch to feeding suet this fall and winter, and if you want to continue feeding seed, you MUST buy spill-proof and squirrel-proof feeders.

To provide further assistance, I reviewed the basics of good bulb planting and protection with my old friend Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherland Flower Bulb Information Center.

First, some basics:
  • Don't plant bulbs too early in the season; no matter what the big sign says at the garden center, the ideal time to plant Spring bulbs in most regions of the country is after Halloween, but before Thanksgiving.
  • Don't feed at planting time; next year's flowers are already formed deep inside this season's bulbs. Feed the plants after they bloom in the Spring (and leave their green leaves in place) to charge up the following year's flower.
  • Pick a site with good drainage. The Native American Quamash is the only Spring bulb that can handle wet soil.
Now, on to protection. Sally reminds us that the #1 way to deter voles, squirrels and deer is to plant bulbs they won't eat. Tulips and crocus are delicious and nutritious; everything eats them. Almost all the other Spring bulbs—daffodils, alliums, fritillaria, etc., etc.—are either toxic or just taste awful. Yes, squirrels WILL sometimes dig up daffodil bulbs and replace them with black walnuts (because squirrels are evil), but they won't actually eat the bulbs.

Equally important, stresses Sally, is to clean up your bulb trash when you're done planting. "Leaving brown scraps and bulb wrappers on the surface of the soil is like putting up a sign that says, 'Tulips planted here; come eat!'" Clean up completely after you plant. And if you want some insurance, spray deer repellant on the surface of the soil to disguise the smell of the tasty treats below.

…Although Sally actually prefers to brush her dogs overtop of newly planted tulip beds and scatter more dog hair on top after every brushing. All of the pests that attack bulbs fear dogs, and there's probably nothing more repellant than mulching your bulb beds with dog hair.

Sally also suggests planting any of the tasty bulbs as close to your house as possible; most animals prefer to plunder plantings at the outskirts of the property—as your crocus experience seems to confirm. (Just don't leave pet food, garbage or other animal attractants nearby.)

Or, she adds, think about 'spot planting' those tasty tulips inside clumps of non-edible bulbs like daffodils. ("At least make the squirrels work for their dinner", she notes sardonically.)


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