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Bulbs! It’s time to plant ’em, and lots more tips

Horticulturist Carol Allen shared her love of bulbs with customers at one of our free seminars, starting with this declaration: “Bulbs deliver, big-time!”  Then she went on to give us tips, lots of tips, and these are just some of them.

Buying and Storing Tips

  • The bigger the bulb, the better, especially if they’re growing where we’ll see them up close, because the larger the bulbs, the more flowers it produces.   When grown en masse to be seen from a distance, go ahead and buy smaller ones in bulb to save money.b.  Amar7yllis, same thing.
  • The earlier you buy them, the greater the availability.
  • Plant them within six months of purchase, and in the meantime, store them in a cool, dry place.  Refrigerators will do the trick.
Grape hyacinth

When to Plant 

October is the best time and Carol hopes we get ours in the ground by Halloween. (The exception being lilies, which should be planted later to prevent premature top growth.) Then she confessed to having planted daffodils after Christmas and they bloomed just fine (though later, up to two weeks later than if they’d been planted in the fall).   If you can’t get your bulbs in the ground this month, go ahead and plant them late – as long as they’re still firm and not discolored.


How to Plant

Plant them to 2-3 times height of the bulb – and that means from the top to the surface of the soil (darn – deeper than some of us were hoping).  If the soil is loose, bulb planters work fine.  Otherwise, no way – they won’t be able to cut through rocks and hardpan clay.   Carol herself uses a trowel or perennial spade, creating a large hole for up to a dozen bulbs placed the correct distance apart, which is faster than digging individual holes for each bulb.  What about feeding them?  Our soils are rich in phosphorus, which is what bulbs need, so Carol doesn’t generally add fertilizer when she plants bulbs.

Besides planting at the correct depth, the most important thing to remember about planting bulbs is that they hate clay – because good drainage is a must!  So if you have clay soil, your bulbs are in danger of rotting.  The solution is to mix well rotted wood chips into the soil – they’re the best clay-buster there is.  She recommends amending clay soil as deep as 16 to 20 inches.   Also excellent for this purpose are pine fines, which are available in bags at garden centers.

Purple allium.

Design Tips

  • Avoid single lines.  Use masses or drifts, in high numbers.  As an example, Carol said that for a 3 x 6-foot bed she would use approximately 20 daffodils.
  • Daffodils look great among hostas because the hosta leaves hide the dying daffodil foliage.  And she agrees with the standard advice about letting daffodil leaves die in place, rather than cutting them off or even tying them up. Those leaves need sun to restore the bulb for the next season.
  • For naturalizing in a lawn, small crocuses, and scillas, winter aconites, and anemone blanda (Grecian Windflower) are great.  Their blooms are long gone before it’s time to start mowing.
  • For naturalizing, plant daffodils 6″ apart.

Squirrel and Deer-Proof Bulbs:

  • Yes, there are plenty of bulbs that go unbothered by squirrels and deer and they are:  daffodils, hyacinths, alliums, fritillaria, iris, scilla, snowdrop, grape hyacinth and winter aconite.
  • When planting other bulbs in squirrel-infested spots, try dipping the bulb in a critter-repellent, or placing wire on top of the hole, just under the mulch.  (And I’ve had good success  protecting tulips by sprinkling red pepper flakes on top of the bulbs, just below the mulch.)
Winter aconites.


Tips by Type of Bulb

  • Carol declared:  “I would not be without snowdrops,” noting that they’re perfect around the roots of trees.
  • Winter aconite she calls “winter sunshine”.  (Indeed – see photo above.)  They, like anemone blanda, are hard little bulbs that need an overnight soaking before planting.  Winter aconite seeds can be removed from the seed pod and scattered for more bulbs in a few years.
  • For more early sunshine she loves ‘February Gold’ daffodils (photo right).  Another small daffodil that’s a favorite is ‘Jetfire.’
  • Her favorite alliums are the ones that look like fireworks, like the  christophii, purple allium shown here (also known as ‘Star of Pershia’).
  • And surprise – now’s a great time to plant fall-blooming bulbs, like colchicum.  They’re critter-proof!


Fall-blooming colchicums.


Posted by  Susan Harris.

Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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