March 20 • 07:45 AM

Bulbs help cure winter blues

Now's the time to 'think spring' when it comes to creative gardening

November 19, 2008
Ben Franklin is famous for saying "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

Of course this famous Philadelphian was doling out such wisdom with more serious things than gardening in mind but who says it can't apply? Anyone who loves to see their yard erupt in lusty colors come spring knows that a little digging in the fall is the best way to anticipate and thwart those winter blahs. We're talking about spring bulbs and if we're granted just a few more dry and mild days, you can still pop a handful or a hundred into the ground.

Bulbs really defy a grower's common sense. They need the cool fall and winter to develop their roots and then just the slightest warm up come spring to pop out of the ground. Save for drainage, most aren't fussy when it comes to care. One bulb holds almost all of its own nutrients to produce year after year. Despite the grueling schedule bulbs adhere to, it's amazing there is such a variety of species, colors, conformations, heights and scents.

Daffodils are one of the cheeriest and most popular harbingers of spring. Ranked number one in spring bulbs by readers of the Better Homes and Gardens magazine, daffodils are one of the most easy-going bulbs to plant. They sometimes go by the name narcissus which comes from the Greek word 'narke,' the root word of narcotic.This likely arose from the fact that narcissi contain an irritant, calcium oxalate, that can be toxic.

Tulips rank right up there with recognizable spring blooms. This flower has a storied past that spans continents and continues to intrigue plant breeders. Again, the variety of tulips is mind-boggling. They come in every color except true blue and black; some are frilled, swirled, striped; and a handful even have variegated foliage. The flowers are indigenous to Central Asia and the name originates from the Arabic term for muslin or gauze, 'tulbend.'

Spring bulbs, like this ‘Apricot Beauty’ tulip, can be forced to bloom indoors following several weeks of a cold treatment. photo by Maria Brown.

Hyacinths are, without a doubt, the show-stealer when it comes to fragrance. Making them doubly attractive is that they're easy to force for indoor bloom. One or two in bloom can easily fill a room with an amazing scent. Natives of Turkey, hyacinths are unfortunately named after a boy in Greek mythology who died after being struck in the head.

Crocuses are the 'cute' ones in the spring flower family. Technically, they are corms, not bulbs. Stout blooms come early in the year and can be tucked anywhere in the landscape. 'Krokos' was the Greek name for the autumn-flowering saffron crocus. Saffron is a very valuable crop and at one time rivaled gold.

Muscari or grape hyacinths fall into the same category—petite but eye-catching. Their foliage sometimes appears in the fall followed by conical clusters of brilliant purple/blue flowers.

One of the most impressive bulbs as far as stature is the allium. Varieties such as 'Globemaster' can grow up to three feet and the head is easily grapefruit sized and then some.

It's also time to plant lilies such as Asiatic and Oriental types that give off strongly scented huge blooms and typically follow the spring blooms, opening up in early to mid-summer.

Then there are the lesser-known bulbs that probably deserve to be on a higher pedestal—snowdrops, fritillaria, anemones and

Siberian squill.

So, grab a shovel and start digging.

Kim Willis, Master Gardener coordinator with the Lapeer County Michigan State University Extension, said it's best to start with plump, unshriveled bulbs and identify the proper spot in your yard or garden for them.

"Bulbs will grow in any soil as long as it is well drained," Willis said.

If heavy clay soil is your reality, consider amending it with compost, manure or peat moss in the near future.

The general rule of thumb when it comes to planting depth is three times the height of the bulb. That roughly equates to planting daffodils 6-8 inches deep; tulips and hyacinths six inches or deeper; and crocuses and the other small bulbs about three inches deep.

When planting, most experts agree that mass grouping will give you the best spring display. Row planting is best for growing cut flowers but to achieve a more natural look simply excavate one large area and set bulbs in bottom, cover with soil and water if the ground's dry.

Some experts suggest working bonemeal into the ground before planting but Willis says it too often attracts pests.

"Use a low-nitrogen garden fertilizer such as 5-10-5," she said.

Mentioning pests, some rodents like to dig up tulip and crocus bulbs. Dipping the bulbs in a repellent before planting or laying down hardware cloth before covering with soil will help deter rodents. In the spring, some rabbits like to nibble on the emerging foliage which can easily enough be covered with chicken wire to discourage destruction.

As long as bulbs are growing in conducive conditions, they'll likely return year after year. In heavy soil, tulips can be the exception.

"Some tulips should be treated as annuals," Willis said.

"They like to be dry in the summer after the foliage fades and we don't have those conditions. There are some tulips labeled 'perennial' in catalogs that do better. Species tulips, the little ones, do better as perennials too."

If all else fails and you find yourself stuck with a bag of bulbs and no (thawed) ground, pull out a few pots and some potting soil. Most bulbs are versatile enough that they can even be 'tricked' into blooming.

Fill a six inch pot with either six tulips or daffodils, three hyacinths or 15 crocuses, leaving the noses of the bulbs exposed just a little. Water and then find a cool place (unheated garage or attic, cold frame or refrigerator) that will stay between 35 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 to 13 weeks. They can't be allowed to freeze.

Give this cold treatment to daffodils and hyacinths at least 12 weeks, tulips 10 weeks and crocus/muscari for 8 weeks.

Then remove them to a 50-60 degree spot with some sun for a week before taking them into the regular warmth of your home where they'll bloom. To extend their lives, place them in a slightly cooler spot at night.

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