As fall approaches and nature begins its slow slide into winter, planting spring-blooming bulbs is the best gardening investment you can make.
It’s a cheerful thing to be tucking those papery bulbs into the ground on a crisp autumn day and confidence that next spring at your place will be a more colorful season is well justified. Bulbs are among the most reliable of plants, with everything needed to produce a glorious flower packed inside a plump, neat package.
You can procrastinate on the planting until nearly Thanksgiving in our area, but you can’t let this go until spring — favorite bulbs like tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and crocus need a prolonged period of cold to trigger flowering. The sooner you buy bulbs at local outlets or order them from catalog suppliers, the better the selection you’ll find. So, time to get going.
No landscape is lacking a few corners where early-blooming bulbs couldn’t give your winter-weary soul a thrill with the bold, bright color of spring’s first flowers. Trust me — you’ll be visiting those spots next March to track the progress of the first shoots when nothing else in the landscape is yet stirring.
Perennial garden borders may not be ideal for bulbs since once they do their disappearing act in early summer, it’s too easy to slice through them when digging in the garden. You could team bulbs with perennials that emerge as the bulb foliage is fading; the perennials will disguise the often unsightly bulb leaves and mark the spot where they lie.
Think of slipping miniature daffodils or smaller tulips under lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) in a shady spot. Once the bulb flowers are gone, the lady’s mantle will produce airy sprays of chartreuse blossoms. Old-fashioned bleeding heart, with arching sprays of pink-and-white flowers, and blue woodland hyacinths (Hyacinthoides hispanica) are another good pair for shade.
In sunnier places, consider teaming up tulips and summer-blooming lilies, or tulips, grape hyacinths and dwarf iris with spurge (Euphorbia polychroma), a drought-tolerant species that produces colorful bracts of yellow-green or orange in late May and June.
Sometimes the easiest strategy is to plant bulbs where you’re prepared to ignore their unlovely post-season phase. Bulbs can be tucked between foundation shrubs or carpet the ground in wooded areas bordering the lawn. You can just let bulb foliage ripen in place until it fades away entirely.
Daffodils, wood hyacinths, snowdrops, anemones and many of the smaller or “minor” bulbs are quite long-lasting, and will multiply over the years by bulb offsets and even seed. On the other hand, tulips, crocuses and lilies are favorite foods of many backyard critters and need special protection if you hope to see a single flower.
New Jersey is divided into two bulb-planting regions, according to a map developed by American and Dutch bulb experts. The northwestern Highlands including Sussex, Warren, Passaic, Hunterdon and Morris counties fall in the Appalachian region, where optimum planting time is Sept. 15 through Nov. 30. The rest of the state lies in the Mid-Atlantic Coastal region, where prime bulb-planting time is Oct. 1 through Nov. 30.
You’ll want to plant when nighttime temperatures stay between 40 and 50 degrees for a week or two. This will prevent late warmth from stimulating top growth, depleting bulb resources, but still allows enough time for bulbs to do the important work of establishing a functional root system.
You can dig individual holes for each bulb you plant but since bulbs look best in groups or clumps, you can also excavate a broad, shallow trench and put in a dozen or more bulbs at a time. Bulbs don’t like air around their roots, so settle them in firmly and water as you go.
Fresh bulbs really don’t need fertilizer in their first year, and it’s not a good idea to put fertilizers in the planting hole, since these can burn tender roots. If your soil is poor, loosen it and add compost, peat moss or well-rotted manure, all of which release nutrients slowly and improve the quality of thin or heavy soils.
If you want to fertilize new plantings, or boost established ones, sprinkle a fertilizer formulated for bulbs on the soil surface after planting, and water it in. Contrary to popular belief, modern bone meal has almost no nutrient value, and its odor will attract animals who may dig up your bulbs. First growth is the other window of opportunity for fertilizing bulbs, which only take up added nutrients when roots are actively growing.
A light mulch over your newly planted bulbs is fine for suppressing weeds, but heavier mulches are properly applied after the ground freezes. Their purpose is not to keep the bulbs warm and snug, but to keep the earth cold, preventing cycles of freezing and thawing that can heave bulbs out of the ground.
About the only other thing to keep in mind is this: Be generous with bulb plantings. You can plant 9 to 15 tulips or daffodils in each cheery clump, but smaller bulbs won’t make much of an impression in groups of less than 25. Whatever you’re thinking of in terms of volume, double it if you can. Three dozen is good; 300 is better. In the dreary, post-winter landscape, abundance is the key to garden happiness.
The time you spend on your knees this fall is directly related to the joy you’ll experience next spring when every day of early warmth gives you reason to go out and hunt down your bulb-babies’ little green noses. And when they finally bloom in spring’s chilly light, your color-hungry eyes will give thanks.