Spring Bulb Planting and Protection Tips
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Q. Dear Mike: I love your show! Now: You've been saying not to plant Spring bulbs yet "because they might sprout". When WILL it be safe to plant? Everyone I ask gives me a different answer. It seems from what you've been saying that the best time is after the first frost but before the ground is frozen. Is this correct? Should I water after I plant? And do you recommend planting in a container? I have daffodil and tulip bulbs. Thanks.
Dear Mike: This year I finally went out and bought hyacinth and tulip bulbs. 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 in Philadelphia(Roxborough)
A. Thank You, ladies—because that time is high! Now, even. At least it's 'now' in the greater Philadelphia area—as well as everywhere North of Philly and South down to the Carolina's. (Listeners in the deeper South should wait till after Thanksgiving.)
The basic goal is to get your bulbs in the ground six weeks before that ground freezes hard for the season. That gives the bulbs time to put down a good root system, but not enough time to sprout and threaten the Spring time show.
And if you live in one of those oh-so-warm climes where the ground DOESN'T freeze, go to the official site of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, www.bulb.com for suggestions and special instructions. (Here's a direct link to their warm weather tips section.) Oh, and as always---a big pppfffttt!! to use out there who are too timid to take a 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, there should be room for another bulb on top. (But don't put another bulb on top, of course; fill that area with soil instead.) Loosen up the soil under the bulb so those roots can get established easily. Don't feed them yet—just add some compost to the planting hole. (The time to feed bulbs is right after they flower in the Spring). And yes, Nancy, do water—to facilitate that all-important root growth.
Containers? Not if you plan to leave them outdoors in the North (see "Force Spring bulbs indoors" at Gardens Alive's YBYG Archives for details.) And Gemma: If the bulbs—like your tulips and stinky hyacinths—have distinctive points, that's the top, which should face up. 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 on their sides, which will allow the stalk to grow up from either end. But don't worry—most bulbs will bloom even if you plant them upside down!
Q. Mike: Squirrels always try and eat my wife's Spring bulbs. We covered the garden with heavy gauge chicken wire, but now the squirrels are digging sideways. Help!
---Rob in Philadelphia
How do I protect my bulbs from squirrels and chipmunks? I do have to thank these creatures for several plants that have 'wandered' into my gardens over the last few years but I don't want them to eat my bulbs or carry them off. I also have a very sunny spot in the back of the house that is very wet. Are there any bulbs I could plant there?
- ---Marian in Woodbury, NJ
A. The easiest vermin-vexing answer is to plant bulbs that are unattractive topests because they're toxic or just plain taste awful. Daffodils ,fritillaries and ornamental alliums are the best known, but there are many others. www.bulb.com has a complete list. And no—that list does NOT include tulips and crocuses; every plant-eating creature in the animal world finds them to be tasty and delicious.
Many people protect their bulbs by covering the bed with chicken wire; the fencing quickly vanishes into the dirt, but still prevents attack from above. As Rob discovered, however, squirrels can be persistent little tree rats—and bulb-eating voles attack from below. A more absolute defense is to plant the bulbs in wire cages that protect them from all sides. (Our listeners in gopher territory will be all-too familiar with this trick.) Make the cages bigger than they have to be, and place the bulbs in the center, surrounded by dirt, so they can't be gnawed from the outside. Or surround the bulbs with lots of small sharp stones; a commercial product called "Vole Bloc" is sold just for this purpose.
And it's vitally important to clean up completely after you're done planting. Leaving dried wrappers and other 'bulb trash' on the surface of the soil is like erecting a neon sign that says: "Hey kids,hungry for bulbs? Dig here!" For added insurance, spray some deer repellant or one of those castor oil products sold to repel moles, voles, and gophers over top when you're done—or spread cayenne powder or crushed hot pepper flakes on top of the soil to thoroughly disguise the scent.
And "our gal Sal"—Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Info Center—adds not to apply mulch right away. Our listeners South of the Philly area don't need to mulch at all, and our Northern friends should wait till after the soil freezes hard. Mulching too early, warns Sally, provides attractive cover for bulb-eating vermin. (And ALL mulches should be applied after the soil freezes hard, no matter what kind of plant life you're protecting.)
And yes, Marian: Sally also tells us that several Spring bulbs love wet feet. One of the best is Leucojum ("The Spring Snowflake")—especially L. aestivum, which likes it REALLY wet. Some Fritillaria also like it damp—especially F. meleagris (aka the "snake's head lily"). You might also 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 (like cannalilies) also love wet feet. But—as the overworked Mohel said—that's a tip for another day.