The fame anon thurgh Rome toun is born
The thing about clichés is that they're true. If you Google "bulbs harbinger of spring," you can find over 1,000 instances of the worn out concept. You can read them till you're sick of it and wonder how anyone has the chutzpah to ever write those words again. The word "harbinger" is very old and originally referred, as illustrated by the Chaucer quote above, to those officers of the court who traveled in advance of the king to announce his arrival. And so indeed, do the early bulbs herald the coming of spring. "Herald" itself is, of course, another old word connected to the men responsible for the delivery of royal proclamations.
How Alla kyng shal comen on pilgrimage,
By herbergeours that wenten hym biforn—
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Man of Law's Tale, 1386
But enough of words.
Growing spring flowering bulbs is one of the most rewarding aspects of gardening.
Bulbs are cheap. And because of that, don't buy cheap bulbs. For a few pennies more you'll get top size bulbs from the best growers and better bloom the first year. Next to growing all your flowers from seed, they're the best bang for your buck that you can find.
Bulbs are easy. And because they're very forgiving, if you dig a hole and stick one in, you'll probably do fine. But it is worth a few extra minutes to prepare the soil and add compost or some sort of fertilization.
Bulbs are almost NO maintenance. Cut off the spent blooms to prevent the plant from putting energy into unwanted reproduction instead of putting it into the bulb itself which is the food storage for next year's growth. Be sure to leave all foliage until it browns or pulls easily from the ground. Leaves are how the plant gets the energy from the sun to make the food.It's true that critters can sometimes be a problem for certain bulb species. Voles, rabbits, mice, and squirrels can all be a concern. (Douglas-Sarpy County Extension Educator Dennis Ferraro reminds us that moles are carnivorous and do not eat bulbs.) Daffodils are poisonous, so they're of no interest to hungry varmits, but tulips are another story. There are dips available to use at planting time; some people mix sharp gravel in the hole, while others cage their bulbs underground in chicken wire (poultry netting) boxes. While I know people who have problems with rodents eating their bulbs, I never have. I have had rabbits eat off crocus growth as it emerged and above ground chicken wire doesn't seem like avery aesthetic solution. Maybe the cayenne pepper approach would work.
Bulbs are a balm to the frozen soul after a long Nebraska winter. Those first snowdrops and crocus peeking through last year's old leaves—or through the snow— can't help but put a smile on your face and allow an exhalation of breath: we made it. Cool fleshy green growing leaves coming out of the drab March soil, they'd be wonderful even if they didn't bloom.Bulbs are widely varied. You can choose between an array of colors, shapes, sizes, forms, and bloom times, from a dainty, early Silla bifolia to a bold, bright red —Kingsblood' Late Flowering Tulip. Bulbs can range in height from 2 to 30 inches and give you bloom from February to late May.You can plant straight species or any of the hundreds of named cultivars.
While some bulbs are not long lasting, others, like Scilla sibirica, spread into large colonies with time. Many East Campus people are familiar with the beautiful display every spring when the lawn at the former home of Chancellor Burnett at 32nd and Holdrege becomes a virtual blue carpet. In Maxwell Arboretum bulbs are grown in stand-alone plantings as well as being incorporated into large herbaceous beds like the Yeutter Garden berm. Incorporating them in flower beds helps to deal with what some gardeners see as a problem: the browning foliage when bloom is finished and the bare space left behind. You can eliminate this concern if you plant your bulbs among late emerging perennials like hosta, hibiscus, butterflyweed, and balloonflower or plant annuals (seeds or plants) as the bulbs fade.
Planting and (almost) no Maintenance:
When planting bulbs, I like to dig out the area up to six inches deeper than the final planting depth of the bulb. I then mix the removed soil with compost and a good organic bulb fertilizer. Bone meal, once the standard bulb fertilizer is no longer recommended as it has been so thoroughly processed as to have almost all its nutrients destroyed. Technically, bulbs should come with all the food they need for the first blooming cycle already in them. After all, that's what a bulb is—a food storage system. Still, I like to take advantage of the one time that I have everything dug up. Then I refill the planting hole a bit higher than the planting depth (this loose soil/compost mix will settle quite a bit) and lay out the bulbs. This puts the good soil and fertilizer where it's needed, in the root zone. When you buy bulbs, they usually come with literature providing the proper planting depth and spacing; but a good rule is 3x the height of the bulb for depth and 3x the diameter of the bulb for on-center spacing. I like to put bulbs a little closer than recommended for a knockout bed. Masses of planting work best; anything besides the "little soldiers" spread out in a row is fine. Remember, too, that you can layer bulbs with larger ones at the bottom and smaller ones on the top—a technique that works in containers as well as in the ground. Experiment with this and bloom times. Fill the rest of the soil mix back in and mark the planting. You can put a plant label in or golf tees make perfect markers when you don't want something obvious but need to know where the bulbs are for later planting. Water the bulbs in well.
Bulb planting is great because it's an act of future promise. Working with your hands in the soil is great for the soul, and planting bulbs is probably the last you'll do of it until spring, so take advantage of your final opportunity of the year to play in the dirt. And for those of you who can't wait, remember to leave some bulbs for indoor forcing. It's easy to do and labels at the garden center or in your catalogs will tell you which bulbs work best for this. Paperwhite narcissus are fine, but there's a lot more to choose from. A few minutes in November will bring much needed respite in January. There's nothing quite like a pot of hyacinths while there's a blizzard outside.
If your bulbs went into winter without a lot of moisture and it's a warm dry spring, it doesn't hurt to give the little guys a deep watering as the season starts. When your bulbs are finished blooming, be sure to snip off those spent blossoms but leave the foliage to "ripen" completely before removing it. Other than that, a topdressing of fertilizer or compost in the fall should be all your bulbs need. If you can think of any reason not to plant bulbs, I sure would like to hear it.
|Scilla bifolia 'Rosea'|
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Hansen, Beth. Spring-Blooming Bulbs: An A to Z Guide to Classic and Unusual Bulbs for Your Spring Garden. Handbook #173, 21st Century Gardening Series. Brooklyn, NY: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2002.
Heath, Brent and Becky. Daffodils for North American Gardens. Albany, Texas: Bright Sky Press, 2001.
_______. Tulips for North American Gardens. Albany, Texas: Bright Sky Press, 2001.
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Lawrence, Elizabeth. The Little Bulbs: A Tale of Two Gardens. New York: Criterion, 1957.
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