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. "Harbinger" is an old word and originally referred, as illustrated by the Chaucer quote below, 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.
The fame anon thurgh Rome toun is born
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 actual bulb, 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. (UNL Professor of Practice 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 a very 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:
Bulb books always say that you should plant your bulbs in areas of good drainage lest they rot. Even though Lincoln soils are notorious for their clay, unless there's actually standing water, you should be alright, especially if you amend the soil under the bulbs. Some bulbs, certain Iris species come to mind, actually want to grow in wet soil conditions.
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 with 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.
As with most aspects of gardening, there is an endless array of books to consult about bulbs. Here are some basics, some classics, and a few of my favorites.
Bryon, John E. Bulbs. Portland: Timber Press, revised ed. 2002.
This is the bulb bible; a veritable tome with everything about every bulb from all over the
world. Plenty of color photographs, too. An American Horticultural Society "Great
American Garden Book."
________. Timber Press Pocket Guide to Bulbs. Portland: Timber Press, 2005.
For those not interested in Bryon's main work, this derivative guide provides more than
enough information. A great basic source.
Ellis, Barbara W. Taylor's Guide to Bulbs: How to Select and Grow More Than 400 Summer-Hardy and Tender Bulbs. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.
All of the Taylor's Guides are full of concise useful information and photographs that really give a sense of what the plant looks like. This book is a good place to begin your bulb library.
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.
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has produced a handsome series of basic gardening books. This volume is, perhaps, a bit thin compared to some of the other guides listed here.
Heath, Brent and Becky. Daffodils for North American Gardens. Albany, Texas: Bright Sky Press, 2001.
A nice little volume that's a good introduction to the Narcissus genus by the owners of the well-known mail order bulb company.
_______. Tulips for North American Gardens. Albany, Texas: Bright Sky Press, 2001.
The companion volume to Daffodils. These bulb lovers cram a lot of useful information into these slender volumes.
James Jr. , Theodore. Tulip. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2003.
I like this book and it's companion Daffodil (see below) even if they're better looking than they are informative. Gorgeously designed by the self-proclaimed "preemininent American publisher of high-quality art and illustrated books." The book's author was knighted by the king of Belgium for his garden and architecture writing (what a country). If you're not familiar with the Abrams imprint Stewart, Tabori & Chang, their books are well worth a look too.
Lawrence, Elizabeth. The Little Bulbs: A Tale of Two Gardens. New York: Criterion, 1957.
Unlike most of the books on this list, The Little Bulbs is not a guidebook, but a wonderful example of true garden writing from a time when an author is referred to on the jacket as "Miss Lawrence." A great companion to Leeds' book below.
Leatherbarrow, Liebeth and Reynolds, Lesley. Best Bulbs for the Prairies. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd., 2001.
Although written by Canadian prairie dwellers, this book is a great addition for us flatlanders south of the line. The authors are committed to prairie gardening and this book is well organized, has great tips, and numerous list of what bulbs to plant in any situation for any purpose.
Leeds, Rod. The Plantfinder's Guide to Early Bulbs. Portland: Timber Press, 2000.
Good overall information, a detailed A to Z of the early bulbs, and fabulous photographs reminiscent of Rix and Phillips' work.
Rix, Martyn and Phillips, Roger. The Bulb Book: A Photographic Guide to Over 800 Hardy Bulbs. London: Pan Books Ltd. , 1981.
Roger Phillips plant books, filled with their stunning photographs, are well known to gardeners. Here, he teams up with Martyn Rix, former Botanist to the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley, whose text is informative, if succinct. I really like these books, but I can't begin to figure out how they're organized. I always need to use the index to find the plant I'm looking for.
Wachsberger, Clyde Phillip, and James, Jr., Theodore. Daffodil. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004.
See companion book, Tulip, above. If learning the 13 daffodil divisions has been an issue for you, this book may help.
Wister, John C. Bulbs for Home Gardens. New York: Oxford University Press, 1948.
This is the revised and expanded edition of the classic 1930 text Bulbs for American Gardens. Although there are lots of newer cultivars than the ones discussed here, this book remains a wonderful comprehensive resource from a preeminent horticulturalist.