Planting Bulbs

BULB: Used loosely to describe any thickened underground stem. By true definition, a bulb is rounded, made of fleshy 'leaves* or scales that store food, with a dry papery outer covering. Tubers, corms, rhizomes, and tuberous roots are the other kinds of underground stems often mistakenly called bulbs.

Although spring seems a long way off - we've hardly made a dent in fall - the wise gardener is busy planting bulbs for the spring garden. Spring and early summer blooming bulbs include anemone, crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, iris, and ranunculus. Some staples in spring gardens in non-arid parts of the country, such as tulips, don't do well here, and need lots of extra water. Replace them with grape hyacinths or irises which are not as thirsty, and are just as spectacular. Summer and fall blooming bulbs such as gladiolas and dahlias are best planted in spring.

Avoid planting bulbs where there are a lot of surface roots, such as in a lawn, which will compete with the bulbs for nutrients and water. Till the soil 12 to 14 inches deep in the planting bed, mix in phosphorous in the form of bone meal, super phosphorous, or ammonium phosphate (follow label), and add sand to the soil if it drains poorly. Without good drainage your bulbs may rot before they ever get a chance to bloom. You may want to dust the bulbs with Captan, a fungicide, or powdered sulfur to prevent rot or infection of any cut surfaces.

The key to beautifully blooming bulbs is well prepared planting beds and proper planting depth. Two tools, the dibble and the cylindrical bulb-planter, are handy for bulb planting. Both make it easier to form planting holes, but you can do the same thing with your trowel. Mass plantings of bulbs can be done in trenches as long as each bulb is planted at the proper depth.

A good rule-of-thumb is to plant your bulbs three times as deep as the bulb is round. For example: if a bulb is about 1 inch around, plant it 3 inches deep. (An exception is the amaryllis which should be planted so that the bulb tip is exposed above soil.) A word of caution to first time bulb planters: one of the biggest mistakes is to plant the bulb too deep. If your fall planted bulbs fail to bloom next spring, dig them up, and replant them at the proper depth.

Gophers, by the way, will view your newly planted bulbs as the perfect fall snack. If you have problems with gophers, plant the bulbs in wire baskets constructed from 1 inch galvanized chicken wire. Place the baskets in the planting hole so that the top of the basket will be about 4 inches above the soil line, fill the basket with soil, and plant your bulbs.

After planting water the bed once, and then let the winter rains handle the rest. When the seedlings emerge in spring, keep the soil moist to 1 foot to keep bulbs from drying out.

Jackie Dillon-Fast
November, 1990