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.
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.
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.)
And finally, she says 'yes' to your pots. In fact, Sally is a big proponent of planting bulbs in containers—at least in zones 7 and higher. Use a BIG container—the bigger the better; and keep the bulbs close to the center of the container, away from the edges. Position the container in a sheltered area, like near a corner of the house; and screen the top in a way that prevents squirrel intrusion. (Those long-tailed Servants of Satan LOVE to container garden).
Sally uses what she calls "expand-o screens" for this protection; those portable sliding rectangular screens that adjust to fit the bottom half of pretty much any size storm window. She puts a couple of big rocks on top of the screens to keep squirrels out. I prefer chicken wire as a squirrel defense, tucked down the inside of the pots as deeply as I can get it, also with rocks on top. You can use other forms of protection; just make sure the bulbs can receive rain water through the protection.
Or try the indoor/outdoor technique we described a few weeks ago for growing garlic in a container; here's a link to it. You also find lots of other Spring bulb tips and tricks under the letters 'B' and 'S' in our archive of previous Questions of the Week.
Special thanks for help with this week's answer (and just about everything else we've ever done that touched on the topic of Spring bulbs) to the wonderful Sally Ferguson and her partner David Karas, whose contract with the Dutch bulb growers will expire in December after 23 years of providing fabulous, fun and faithful advice on Spring bulbs to garden wretches like me. Tulips will never seem the same, Sally!