Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Growing up: Plant your garden now for colorful spring-blooming bulbs

Do you know what I always think of in the fall?  Tulips!  Sound strange?  It actually isn't, since spring blooming bulbs need to be planted now.  Have you ever looked at a beautiful spring display of tulips and daffodils in your neighbor's yard and wished that you had thought of planting some of your own?  It's not too late.  Bulbs can be planted as long as the ground isn't frozen.

The first step is to make a plan.  What kind of look are you trying to create?  There are many types of bulbs available ranging from traditional daffodils, tulips, crocus and hyacinth to the more unusual, such as galanthus (snowdrops), muscari (grape hyacinth), fritillaria and allium.  Although bulbs are considered "spring" bloomers, they are categorized into early, mid- and late-season bloom times. So if you want your white crocus and purple tulips to bloom together, make sure they both bloom in the same season.

Weather conditions and planting locations will affect the bloom dates. Bulbs in beds facing south or near a foundation where the soil is warmer will tend to bloom earlier, whereas bulbs planted in an area with a little more shade will bloom later and last longer. With good planning and selection, you will have bulbs that will provide color from April to mid-June.

Bulbs can be planted anywhere in your garden. Scatter them for a naturalized look, plant in clusters of ten or more for a dramatic effect or plant them en masse to create a showpiece bed. Keep in mind that bulbs don't need to be off in a bed by themselves, but can be planted among perennials, underneath permanent ground covers like ivy or vinca, or tucked into niches in a rock garden. They also make good companions for plants with alternate up-and-down times. Daffodils and hostas are an especially good combination. The daffodils are up and flowering before the hostas leaf out; then in summer the hosta foliage covers the dormant daffodils.

After you've made your plan and decided what and where to plant, the next step is to prepare the area. Bulbs need to be planted in soil that drains well. If your soil is heavy, add a 3-4 inch layer of compost and work the soil to a depth of 12-18 inches. To help future growth, fertilize in the fall with a granular high phosphorous fertilizer and again in the spring when shoots appear.

The next step is to plant. Plant larger bulbs — tulips, daffodils and hyacinths — eight to ten inches deep and at least four inches apart. Smaller bulbs — crocus, scilla and muscari — plant four to five inches apart and two to four inches deep. In sandy soil, plant two inches deeper. Deeper planting keeps the bulbs from freezing in extremely cold climates and keeps them cooler in warm climates. Space the bulbs far enough apart that the flowers will not be crowded, but close enough that the planting will look full.

If you are planting a large quantity of bulbs in a new bed, you may find it easier to excavate the whole area to the proper depth, place the bulbs in the bottom and back fill the soil. You can also use a bulb planter, auger or trowel to dig individual holes for each bulb. For even flowering, make sure that all the bulbs of the same kind are at the same depth. Place the bulbs firmly in the ground with the pointed end up and the root end down, cover with soil and water thoroughly. If there is a long dry spell, water your bulbs again. In our area, it is recommended that you cover with four to six inches of mulch (compost, cover bark or other organic material).

In the spring, remove the mulch before the tender shoots develop more than an inch or two. After blooming, the bulbs will continue to grow, store food and form next year's flowers. Good care at this time is very important for vigorous blooms the following spring. Remove the dead flowers so the bulbs won't spend their energy making seeds. Allow the foliage to yellow and wither naturally. Don't cut the leaves off until they are completely brown. Leave the bulbs in the ground through the summer and fertilize with a bulb booster again in the fall.

Jim Gainan is VP/Shareholder of Gainan's Flower and Garden Center in Billings.