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Fall Bulbs For Spring Color*Note (Early September, 2007)
by Fred Davis, MG, Hill Gardens of Maine
(To view other articles, click Archives)


Welcome through Fred's Garden Gate! Once again, the time has rolled around to talk seriously about the bulbs we plant in the fall for next springs' bloom. And while the actual time for planting may still be a couple of weeks away, the time for planning isn't. Displays of tulips, daffodils, narcissus, hyacinth and crocus bulbs are already appearing in a great many stores. Catalogs from major retail bulb suppliers have already been mailed; the push is now on to place as many bulbs in the hands of as many gardeners as is humanly (and commercially) possible.

Yet, a great many of those gardeners remain uncertain about exactly what it takes to enjoy top performance from bulbs. So our purpose this time is to guide you through the complexities of selection, purchase, soil preparation, planting, fertilizing, mulching and after-blossom care.

Just what is a bulb, anyway? A bulb is actually an underground bud with a hefty fuel-reserve. If you slice through a daffodil or tulip bulb, for example, and look closely with a magnifier, you can see next years' entire plant—in miniature. It's important to understand before going any further that the entire plant—flowers and all—is already formed and in dormancy before you even plant your bulb in the ground.

Knowing that, it stands to reason that if you purchase large, firm and healthy bulbs as early in the fall as possible—even though they may cost a little more—you will be much more likely to get large, strong and healthy plants...and lots of color next spring. If, on the other hand, you wait until the merchant reduces the price on leftovers at the very last minute hoping (in desperation) to "dump" them before the ground freezes solid, and buy bargain-priced, little, weak bulbs that have been pawed over, bruised and dehydrated, you'll end up with weak little flowers—if any at all.

It also stands to reason that the better you prepare a bulb's new home—deep, rich and with ample, long-lasting nutrition—the better your plants and flowers will be for years to come. If, on the other hand, you do as many "last-minute" gardeners do—chisel a little hole in soil that hasn't been rejuvenated in years, squeeze in a bulb or two and cover with a clod of dirt that a good bulldozer would have difficulty breaking apart—you will have wasted time, money and no-telling how many bulbs...and you'll be rewarded with a few pitiful little flowers next spring that you'll probably end up apologizing for. And the following year? Forget it!

But don't pass up a bargain! Having said all that about end-of-season dregs sales, it is possible to find some real bargains on leftover bulbs after the big fall-bulb-sale blast. They may not look too great during their first full year in the garden but if they're planted according to instructions and given a little tender loving care, they'll probably do just fine the second year. Be cautious and very closely inspect each individual bulb you buy on sale. Reject any which feel soft or damp, or are badly shriveled up because of dehydration. And don't even consider one which smells bad. That's right...sniff each one. If it has an odor like rotten anything, leave it where you found it. Patience does have its reward but let the buyer beware.

Give them a good home. Great care should be taken when planning a new bulb drift or garden, or even when just adding a few bulbs here and there in the border. When planted properly, crocuses, daffodils, snowdrops and the like will last for years. Really. It isn't necessary to dig them up every two or three years, so thorough preparations must be accomplished for best results. Follow these simple rules and prepare to enjoy spring-flowering bulbs at their best for years to come.

  • Carefully select their new home. Full sun is best with perhaps a little light shade during the hot afternoon. Drainage is important, and try to avoid heavy tree root competition. Ask yourself: Do I and my family want to see them exclusively, or are they to be seen by others from the road or the neighbor's place? Perhaps both. Make those decisions during the planning stage.

  • Since their foliage must remain after blossoms fade, plan a companion planting to conceal the sometimes raggedy and floppy leaves of bulbs while they work on next year's flowers (more on after-flower care, later).

  • Soil must be deeply broken up and amended. Right here is where more than a few gardeners take some downright annoying short cuts. Unless your garden has been blessed with deep, rich, chocolaty-brown, well-drained soil of just the right pH and nutritional content (a rare circumstance, indeed!), it's going to need some help if your bulbs are to look like anything. When we prepare to install new bulbs in our gardens, we add a three or four inch layer of screened compost (Cycle-Gro), an inch or so of clean, sharp sand, a generous helping of deodorized bonemeal or rock phosphate, and a little 5-10-10. All that is then deeply dug and mixed in with a spading fork. I drive it straight down—right to the hilt to a depth of at least twelve inches—and mix it all in thoroughly.

The importance of phosphorus: An important element when growing bulbs, phosphorus stimulates large flowers and helps to build large and healthy bulbs for next year's color. Bonemeal or rock phosphate is a must for any perennial which has some form of underground food-storage structure—like a bulb, corm, rhizome, tuber or thick, fleshy roots (German iris, daylilies, hostas, bleeding hearts, for example)

(Understanding fertilizer formulas)

Some gardeners, particularly those plagued by skunks, raccoons or a neighbor's dog, prefer not to use bonemeal because its odor attracts uninvited guests who may turn the garden upside-down overnight. rock phosphate is a good substitute, and perfectly natural. An alternative: prepare the soil two weeks in advance of planting, adding in bonemeal. Let the critters dig and cultivate to their hearts content. The bonemeal odor soon disappears...and so do the furry pests.

  • You'll notice that I didn't say anything about using peatmoss. That's because the stuff is nutritionally and biologically dead and adds nothing but some marginally-beneficial organic matter. While peatmoss does lighten very heavy soil (like clay), it dries out quickly and is murderous to re-wet when it does. Peatmoss also acidifies what is probably an already over-acidic soil, requiring the use of additional lime. 


    • A Tip: Never use peatmoss as a mulch! Peatmoss quickly and willingly surrenders its moisture to the air, then acts just like a wick, drawing more moisture from the soil below—which it loses to the air. A one way water flow...but in the wrong direction! It's the best way I know to create a small dustbowl—one which will be very difficult to re-wet. Besides all that, peatmoss is rapidly becoming coarser, more expensive and in smaller bales. (Though the peatmoss industry would be quick to deny this plain and simple fact, it's promotion, propaganda and package advertising is all about profit!) A good compost made of biologically decomposed yard and kitchen waste is infinitely superior to peatmoss!
  • Best effects are from a mixture. All of one color might look good in a formal setting, but most gardens around New England are much more relaxed. Additionally, different types or varieties bloom at slightly different times. In our garden, spring bulbs blossom over a period of about seven or eight weeks. When planted in a mix, tulips alone show color for more than six weeks.
  • Start with a few, or as many as you can comfortably afford or have prepared space for, adding a few new ones each year (in the fall, of course). Most will multiply on their own, given reasonable care and soil conditions.

Planting. Bulbs should be planted as early in the fall as practical in our Northern New England climate. Hybrid lily bulbs (Asiatic and/or Oriental) are particularly susceptible to damage from drying out, so get them in the ground without delay.

The rule of thumb for planting depth is three times their largest diameter. So, if your bulb is one inch across, it would be planted three inches deep. Two inches across would go in six inches deep. Most bulbs purchased from retail outlets will go in at about six inches, except very small ones like crocus and grape hyacinth. Three inches is best for them. If you're planting a mix of bulbs and perennials, be careful not to park a plant directly on top of a bulb. Try marking where bulbs are planted with a handful of white sand.

If your soil is moist at the time of planting, just a little water will suffice to "seat" them in and make them feel at home. But when they're actively growing, they need plenty of water. Remember that their roots are quite deep, so they'll want a good deal more than a light sprinkling. After the flowers go by, keep them damp until the leaves turn yellow or brown. Also keep in mind that this is a more-or-less permanent planting. Put an appropriate amount of thought into their arrangement in the garden.

Mulching. A light and neat looking mulch of bark chips or shreds, or pine needles, conserves moisture, discourages weeds and adds a finished look to your garden. Avoid lawn clippings or hay because the weed and grass seeds they contain will turn your beautiful garden into a hayfield. Mulches can stay on and should be replenished each year after spring cleanup. Remember that bark and pine needle mulches consume nitrogen in their process of breaking down, so you'll need to supplement a little extra nitrogen as each season marches on. Discontinue granular nitrogen about the middle of July, and apply no liquid nitrogen after about the middle of August.

Something else to consider when mulching is that wood-based materials, pine needles and shredded leaves tend to increase soil acidity. It would be wise to keep an eye on soil pH. One of those little $20 electronic meters is a good investment. Adjust pH with ground limestone (with magnesium) or wood ash (not ash produced by burning coal or trash). Your local Cooperative Extension can assist you in getting your annual soil test. Cooperative Extension Offices by state and county.

After-flower care. Here come two important rules which, if observed and combined with recommended cultural and planting practices, will almost guarantee bulb-growing success: (1) Do not remove leaves of gone-by bulbs while they're still green. Those green leaves are hard at work storing up food for next years' flowers and growth. (2) Do, however, cut off spent flowers so they won't waste time and precious energy producing seeds that'll never be used. 

Leaves of bulbs can be a little messy looking. You can dress up your garden by drawing the leaves together, folding them over and securing them with a rubber band or garden tie. Some gardeners prefer to tie leaves into a knot or braid, which is ok if you avoid breaking any off. Consider planting some annuals like pansies, asters, stocks, marigolds or the like to help conceal bulb foliage until it turns yellow or brown. Just remember that bulb foliage needs at least some sunlight until it has completed the task of re-building the bulb for its next blast of spring color. We remove the leaves only after they've all gone completely brown and lie flat on the ground.

"Why don't my tulips last more than 2 or 3 years?" According to an expert in growing tulips, gradual decline in flower quality is an inescapable standard with the large, hybridized, so-called "garden" tulips sold en masse by retailers every fall. That decline, however, can be delayed by observing a few simple rules. Since "richness" in soil is not permanent or self-rejuvenating, you must do a first rate job of initial soil preparation, then continue those soil improvements each season afterwards. The key words: deep (at least 12 inches), high organic matter (well cured compost, aged manure), bonemeal (or rock phosphate; I personally prefer deodorized bonemeal), spring fertilizer, and after-flower care.

Probably the most important of all tulip cultural practices is the prompt removal of spent flowers. Important: leave as much of the flower stem as possible, along with all leaves. All that nutrition which went toward creating a tall stem will then be able to flow back down into the bulb where it'll be utilized in the production of next years' color. According to our expert (from DeVroomen-Holland Bulb Company), quite possibly the worst thing a gardener can do is to pull the entire stem completely out of the bulb. On top of taking part of its dinner dish away, a great gash has now been created in the bulb and the rot-causing organisms rush right in. Bye-bye bulb!

There are tulips, by the way, which multiply and seem to get better every year. Commonly planted in rock gardens, "specie" tulips are generally earlier, shorter, just as charming as they can be, and a few bulbs become a delightful clump in a very few years. "Tarda" (Tulipa liliaceae) is one of our favorites. With the arrival of the morning sun, Tarda opens to a nearly flat, six-pointed yellow star fringed in white. Flowers fold back into a closed bud after dark.

Bulb pests. About the only serious pests of fall bulbs are furry little four-legged creatures which get real hungry during winter. You know the ones...burrowers who consume virtually everything edible in their paths and multiply like...well...mice!. The best defense is a summer mouser-cat that's encouraged to roam throughout the garden on an empty stomach. Not a pretty thought, but modestly successful. A more humane (for both the cat and its prey) tactic would be to plant your bulbs in submerged 1/4-inch hardware cloth baskets (your local hardware store has some). Make sure the lip of your bulb-basket comes right up to the surface because mice and vole tunnels are usually only an inch or two below ground level. A nifty trick is to shape the wire around a block of wood, using a hammer or half brick. When it's the right shape, trim off the top with snips, dig a hole in thoroughly-prepared soil, drop in the basket, put an inch or so of soil in the bottom, plop in your bulbs (right-side-up) and fill to the top. If you're careful, you won't even see the wire above ground. A light mulch gives it all a finished look.

There are a few micro-organisms which may attack stressed-out (hungry or thirsty) bulbs. No need to know their names; it's enough to understand that the healthier your soil, the less apt are your bulbs to become affected by viruses, fungi and bacterial infections. Healthy soils contain ample compost, have good drainage, are provided with sufficient nutrition, and are not clogged with weeds or tree feeder roots.

Deer, woodchucks and rabbits also have a taste for bulb flowers—especially tulips and hybrid lilies. There are several repellants on the market. Most are quite expensive; some have a most disagreeable odor (some might say horrendous!). A good, homemade, blenderized concoction of liquefied wormwood (Artemesia absinthum) leaves mixed with a little garlic, sprinkled around the bed should make the place unpleasant for them without running the gardener or her guests out. A close friend and respected long-time gardener uses urine to discourage deer from eating all his tulips. It works very well for him, but some may find even the thought objectionable. A mouthy dog can also be highly effective if you can train it to pee in the right spots, and resist the temptation to rampage through the garden at near-lightning speeds. Most farm-'n-garden stores sell pricey little bottles of predator urine. The scent of fox, coyote, wolf or bobcat urine can be a powerful deterrent to browsing! Still, a desperately hungry flower-nibbling critter will do just about anything for a bite to eat.

Well, there you have as much of the low-down on fall bulbs as I can think of at the moment. Why not consider adding a few daffodils, tulips or crocus to your garden early this fall. Spring always seems to come a bit quicker when, on some bright and crisp April morning you look across the brown devastation of late winter and see some cheery little flower-faces following the sun.

* This article originally appeared in the August, '94 issue of Our Garden Gate, a monthly subscription newsletter of gardening information published by Hill Gardens of Maine.


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