Plant bulbs now for spring color

Days grow shorter and evenings grow cooler as fall comes rolling down the hills and valleys, bringing color to trees and a slowing to the garden. Flowers begin to fade and green tomatoes, slowed by the lack of heat, cling to vines that are starting to show the wear and tear of age.

While most fall landscape tasks concentrate on cleaning up and putting things to rest, there are still a few things to do that will enhance the garden in the future. As temperatures fall, it is time to plant those flowering bulbs that will bring color to the garden come early spring. Tulips (the most popular bulb in the world), daffodils, hyacinths, and crocus are all popular fare for dressing up the garden come spring.

Though to be more accurate, I should say that it is time to plant spring-flowering bulbs, corms, tubers, and rhizomes. You see, we lump all of those things together, but technically speaking, they are very different.

Bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, are basically complete plant packages. Think of another bulb, the onion. The “rings” inside an onion are actually the leaves that will emerge when the plant starts to grow. That hard little base at the bottom that you cut out is the stem of the plant. That’s right, that little part is the only stem the plant has. Coming out of the bottom of the stem are the roots.

True bulbs keep growing year after year, usually adding new rings.

Corms, on the other hand, are hardened sections of stem that have roots growing from them. They may look like bulbs, but if you cut them open you will not find any leaf rings. Crocus and Colchicum (a poisonous crocus relative) are corms, as are their spring-planted relatives Gladiolous and Crocosima. The corm is used up by the plant for food, but a new corm (and maybe more) grows in its place to replace it.

While most aren’t fall planted, there are also tubers (dahlias, daylilies, and potatoes) and rhizomes (iris, canna and lily-of-the-valley).

AR-150929561This year, I decided to add some crocuses to the garden. But these are not your run-of-the-mill, spring flowering crocus. The ones that I have selected are fall flowering. They are also special because they are saffron crocuses (Crocus sativa). The red stigmas (female reproductive parts) of these purple flowers are collected and used as saffron, the world’s most expensive spice.

Most bulbs are fairly simple to plant and grow, requiring little after they are established. Most that you will buy come with directions, but if not, plant the bulb two to three times deeper than it is tall. My 1-inch crocus bulbs were planted 2 inches deep, for example. Tulips and daffodils would be planted 6 to 8 inches deep.

For the best “show” for your bulbs, I suggest planting them in groups. Our brains like when these showy plants are grouped together, rather than spread out, so you group them pretty close. Unless you are grouping nine or more of them, I’ll also suggest planting in odd numbers. I know it is weird, but our brain tends to like things in odd numbers.

After you dig out a hole wide and deep enough for your bulbs (or corms), toss in a little organic fertilizer such as blood meal and bone meal. You can also buy special bulb booster fertilizer, but it isn’t necessary. The goal of planting these bulbs in the fall is to get good root growth through the winter to support the plant next spring. A little boost will help. I’ve also heard people say that these organic fertilizers aren’t pleasing to squirrels, who may come along to lunch on your bulbs.

After you get them planted, water them in and make sure they stay well-watered through the fall. If there is sufficient rain, you won’t have to worry about it. After they are established, you usually don’t have to worry about water unless the spring is very dry.

After they have bloomed next spring, leave the leaves in place to harvest energy to fee the bulb for the next year. After a few years, you’ll want to dig them up, divide them, and replant to make sure they keep blooming. As new bulbs and corms grow out from the original one, the increasing size of the roots limits flowering, so you’ll want to keep them divided to keep them flowering.

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