October 7, 2013

Plant spring-flowering bulbs now

By JOLENE WALLACE, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — As our flower gardens begin to fade, and we say a sad goodbye to the colors that have delighted us for the past few months, it’s time to think about planting spring-flowering bulbs. 

Spring-flowering bulbs are planted in the fall because they need long periods of cool temperatures to activate the biochemical process that causes them to flower. They also need time to establish a root system before the ground freezes.

Bulbs are priced by size. For instance, daffodil bulbs come not only in a number of varieties, but also a number of sizes. Generally, the larger the bulb, the more mature it is, and the more likely to produce large flowers. It is also more expensive than a smaller bulb that will produce lovely flowers but may take a year or two to rival the size. 

If you purchase bulbs early in order to have a better selection to choose from, store the bulbs in a cool, dry location away from direct sunlight until planting time.

Bulbs should be planted in a sunny location with good drainage. Early blooming varieties can be planted under trees as long as they will bloom before the tree leafs out and creates too much shade. Planting bulbs in clusters results in a more dramatic result than single bulbs planted here and there. Planting in a triangular shape with the point toward the front of the bed and the opposite, longer edge at the back of the bed creates the illusion of a greater number of flowers than there actually are.

Since you will be leaving the greens in place after the flowers are gone, you want to plant bulbs where your perennials will obscure the greens as they die back. Planting annuals in front of the drying greens will have the same shielding effect. Leaving the greens on until they die back is critical as it allows the bulb to gather what it needs for the following year’s blooms.

The bulbs you plant this year have everything in them now to produce spring flowers. Since the bulbs are likely to stay in the ground for a number of years, adding well-composted manure or slow-release bulb food will help the bulb maintain vigor for the following year. 

A common problem we get many calls about during bulb-planting time is squirrels, skunks and mice digging up the bulbs. After a day of planning and planting your bulbs, you go to bed knowing you accomplished something, and then get up the next morning to see holes where your bulbs used to be. 

Your bulbs are most susceptible to snitchers just after planting while the soil is soft after being worked up. Be sure to water thoroughly after planting, and do a good job of cleaning up the site. The onion-like skins of bulbs left on the ground are like a neon sign flashing “eat here” to the critters who share your landscape.

Chicken wire placed over the bulbs will make it difficult for critters to dig, and your bulbs will come up through the holes in the screen. A window screen in a wooden frame placed over your planting site will also help as long as it is too heavy for the varmints to move. After the ground settles and the threat is over, it can be removed. 

A layer of mulch applied before the ground freezes, and you are ready to enjoy the coming winter knowing you have colorful blooms to look forward to in spring.

Jolene Wallace is the horticulture program educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. Contact her at 561-7450 or