Gazette Ceases Publication: Donates Archives to LHS

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It's Fall: Time to Think About Bulbs

It’s a sure sign of Fall when you start getting the garden catalogs in the mail featuring a variety of bulbs. The beautiful pictures of spring-flowering bulbs are ever so tempting.  Now is the time to take a good take an inventory of places in your garden to plant some of those bulbs.

I did an assessment of my garden the other day with the idea of adding more spring-flowering bulbs. Those first flowers in the spring are always a delight.  I have daffodils and crocuses in my yard as well as snowdrops.  I will fill in some spaces in my daffodil garden, which I marked off in the spring. I plan to plant muscari – grape hyacinths en masse, which I have seen in a number of Larchmont gardens.  I like Muscari armeniacum for its great blue color.  I have also found some room for a few fritillaria bulbs which produce beautiful bell-shaped flowers.  So let’s get started.

What is a Bulb?

The term “bulb” is generally used to describe plants which have an underground food storage capacity. Technically speaking, only some bulbs are true bulbs (tulips, daffodils, lilies) but we also use the term  to describe corms (crocus, gladiolas), tubers (caladium, tuberous begonias), rhizomes (irises, lily of the valley) and tuberous roots (dahlias, anemones).

Bulbs for Every Season

Bulbs give the garden a wonderful palette of colors throughout the seasons. In the spring, snowdrops are followed by crocuses and scillas, then come hyacinth, daffodils and tulips. In summer there are alliums, dahlias and lilies followed by colchicums.  And these are just a few of the bulbs available for planting. As we go into fall, our focus will be on planting spring-flowering bulbs.

Plant your bulbs in odd-numbered groups with the "pointy" end up. Photo by Ann Mangone.

Plant your bulbs in odd-numbered groups with the "pointy" end up. Photo by Ann Mangone.


What should you do before buying your bulbs?

  • Assess your garden. What do you already have in your garden?  Are there unplanted  spaces where you can add more bulbs?  Think about where you now have some annuals or early summer-flowering perennials. The foliage from your bulbs will die back; the space will fill in with those other plants.  Because tulips often bloom well only in the first year, you may want to consider replacing some of them. On the positive side, many daffodils and grape hyacinth will naturalize, which means you’ll have more of them next year than you did last spring.
  • Site and soil. Many spring-flowering bulbs do well the first year but for flowering in subsequent years, you need to pay attention to the site and soil. Good drainage is important.  Bulbs can rot in water-logged soil.  Many bulbs need full sun, at least 5 to 6 hours of direct sun a day, to thrive.
  • Where to plant. Bulbs can be planted in a variety of locations – in perennial borders, in front of foundation plants, in rock gardens, in containers or naturalized on lawns.  They can be planted in groups with a single flower-type or with companion plants.
  • Color. Decide what colors you like. Do you like a mass of flowers all one color or a bed of mixed colors?
  • Height. Consider the height of the plant, which can range from a few inches to several feet, and where the bulb will be placed in the bed.
  • Bloom time. A garden can have continual blooms from early March until frost with different bulbs.  Even within one species, such as tulips, bloom time can be from early to late spring depending on variety.
  • Consider the plant. Within one plant family, look at the growing requirements for the particular species you are buying.  If you are planting fritillaria bulbs, for example, you should know that crown imperial, fritillary (Fritillaria imperialis) has red, orange and yellow flowers (depending on the variety), grows 2 to 3 feet, requires full sun and well-drained soil. Snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) has blooms in shades of purple (some in white) with checkered pattern, grows ¾ to 1 foot, likes part shade and damp soil.
  • Try something new. Be adventurous and plant some new bulbs this year. Try camassia, windflowers (Anemone blanda) or other bulbs which you do not have in your yard.

When to Plant

Hardy spring-flowering bulbs can generally be planted in Larchmont from mid-September to early December.  Planting in early October for daffodils and other April-blooming bulbs and October through early November for May-blooming tulips is preferable.  Be sure to get your bulbs in the ground before the first hard frost.  Try to plant bulbs as soon as you buy them.  If you can’t get them in the ground right away, store your bulbs in a cool (about 60 degrees F), well-ventilated place to keep them from drying out.

How to Plant

  • Which end up? The pointed end of the bulb (from which the foliage will emerge) should be facing up when planting and the bigger flatter end (from which the roots will grow) should be placed at the bottom of the planting hole.
  • Planting depth. As a general rule, plant bulbs so that the soil above the top of the bulb is about twice the diameter of the bulb. Tulips and daffodils should be planted so their tops are about 5 inches below the surface of the soil. Smaller bulbs, 1 inch or less in diameter, can be planted about 2 to 3 inches below the soil surface.  For little bulbs like grape hyacinth or scilla, you can dig a trench and drop them in.
  • Bulb spacing. Factors to consider are the size of the bulb and place in the garden.  Generally plant large bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart, which provides enough space to grow for a few years before they need to be divided.  Smaller bulbs can be placed closer together. For naturalized settings, space bulbs farther apart.
  • Group your bulbs. It looks better if you plant your bulbs, such as daffodils, in groups rather than soldier-like rows. Planting in odd-numbers like 5 or 7 often looks better than even-numbered groups of 4. Think about grouping them as “ bouquets.” Smaller bulbs look better planted in masses.
  • Watering. Water bulbs thoroughly after planting and during their growing season.
  • Fertilizing. If desired, you can use bone meal at planting time. Make sure you mix it thoroughly in the soil and cover with a layer of soil so the bulbs do not come into contact with the fertilizer.  You can fertilize your spring-flowering bulbs again when the plants are in bloom, using a low-nitrogen fertilizer, such as 5-10-5.
  • Squirrels and Chipmunks. Unfortunately, these animals like tulip and crocus bulbs and may dig up some of the bulbs before the ground is frozen.  Chicken wire or hardware cloth placed over the planted area will discourage them.  Rodents do not care for certain bulbs, such as daffodils, scillas and snowdrops.

To Do List for September

  • Divide perennials that have become overgrown.  Slow growing perennials, such as peonies, rarely need dividing.  More robust growers, such as beebalm, need frequent dividing.
  • If you need to move your peonies because of overcrowding or too much shade, transplant them this month.
  • Plant containers with fall flowers such as chrysanthemums and asters.
  • September is a good time to reseed or renovate your lawn.
  • Remove debris and weeds from the garden.
  • Check the pH of your soil, if you have not already done so, to see if you need to amend your soil.  For more information on pH testing, see our previous article, Don’t Pack Soil, Test It!

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