Now is the time to plant spring flowering bulbs! Chances are you will see a wide variety of bulbs at your local garden center but how to choose?
For those of you who are troubled by deer and rodents, try daffodils (Narcissus), snowflakes (Leucojum), and snowdrops (Galanthus). Members of the Amaryllis family, these bulbs contain a bitter poisonous chemical that mammals will not eat. In our Washington DC area, these are the easiest to grow: they are tough plants that will bloom year after year, untouched by deer and squirrels. Other bulbs that deer don’t favor (but may take an interest if food is scarce) are species of Fritillaria, blue squill (Scilla), glory of the snow (Chionodoxa), starflower (Ipheion), winter aconite (Eranthis), and camassia (Camassia).
Tulips are beautiful and popular: flowers are deer candy and bulbs are squirrel food. Tulips have a reputation for being short lived and misplaced but one trick to prolong their life is to buy hybrid Darwin tulips and plant them about10 inches deep, deeper than recommended, to ensure adequate insulation and protection from squirrels. Still, deer have been known to nosh on the flowers at night, leaving green stalks and frustrated gardeners in the morning.
Another factor to consider is the sunlight and soil moisture. Most bulbs need to be planted in a well-drained area with full sun. There are “woodsy” types that tolerate some shade and moist soil such as snowdrops, winter aconite, Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides), squill, and glory of the snow. Usually the smaller bulbs can tolerate the shade under a deciduous tree in early spring before the tree leafs out.
Cost is also a factor. You want the bulb to be as big (for its particular type) as possible so don’t settle for bargain basement deals, get high quality, healthy bulbs. That being said, spring blooming bulbs always look better in groups or masses so count on buying a bunch of high quality, healthy bulbs, not just one.
Larger bulbs need more space between them than small bulbs so allow about 5 inches between large bulbs and two to three inches between smaller bulbs. The rule of thumb is to plant down 2 to 3 times the width of the bulb so if a bulb is 2 inches wide, plant so the base of bulb is 4-6 inches below the soil line (with the exception of the Darwin tulips as mentioned above). With something like a daffodil, which has a tear drop shape, it is easy to find the nose which is planted upward. Look for a smaller pointier top and a wider base to figure out which end is up but if you can’t tell at all, plant it sideways and it will sort itself out.
Once you have bought your bulbs, simply dig, drop, and cover with soil. After planting, water well. In our area, the best time to plant is October and November, when the soil temperature is cooler but not frozen. The roots need time to get established before the soil freezes. It is possible to plant later but not after the soil has frozen and the later one plants, the less likely the plant will become established enough to withstand winter. There is no need to fertilize but keep track of what you planted where you planted so you don’t accidently dig them up in the spring when you start to plant the cool season annuals such as pansies.