Worth the Wait
I read recently that patience is a dying virtue. In our modern world everything is available almost instantaneously at the push of a button, from movies to music to toilet paper delivered to your door. According to expert sources we need to incorporate ways to foster patience into our daily life, we need to learn to wait for things. My solution? Plant some Fall bulbs.
Fall bulbs are planted in the fall and then come up in the spring… this is the ultimate in waiting. Do all the work right now and have to wait half a year to see the results, pretty much torture for Generation Z. But fall bulbs are definitely worth the wait. Coming through the cold, soggy, grey days of winter to catch a glimpse of sunshine as a splash of colour explodes out of the ground… yes please. And one of my personal joys is that I’ve often forgotten about them so when they arrive it’s almost like a surprise gift. But enough waxing poetic, let’s put down the pumpkin latte and start planning our spring garden.
Before we start to think about what bulbs we want to plant we need to think about how and where we are going to plant them. Bulbs rot, full stop. Never plant them somewhere boggy or an area with bad drainage. There are lots of plants that like to have wet feet, find some of those and plant them in your wet spots, put the bulbs somewhere else. In fact, if you have a spot that is questionable then it wouldn’t hurt to put a little sand in the bottom of the hole when you are planting just to increase the drainage.
The next thing you need to consider is sunshine, bulbs like sun. The reason many emerge and bloom so early in the year is to take advantage that many trees and plants are still leaf-less and there is more sunshine available. So, make sure to plant your bulbs somewhere sunny, keeping in mind that if they are early bloomers then you may have more sun in a spot that is otherwise shady in the summer months, like under a deciduous tree. If you have a site that you absolutely need to have spring bulbs and you can’t provide them with these two things, good drainage and sunshine, then grow your bulbs and in a pot, that way you can control the drainage and move them around to find the sun.
Once you know where to plant it’s time to dig some holes. Just in case you are curious the information on the packaging that relates to planting instructions are not just there as a casual suggestion. You need to pay attention to the suggested planting depths on the package. If you plant your bulbs the correct way then you are setting yourself up for success in the spring. In general bulbs need to planted two to three times the diameter of the bulb (but always check the suggested planting depths), and pointy side up. If you have a bulb without a pointy bit (such as a ranunculus bulb) and you are not sure what to do, plant it on an angle or even sideways. Most of the time the bulb knows what to do and can right itself… they can figure it out for themselves and will end up on their feet… or roots.
A good addition to the planting hole (other than the bulb) is a couple of tablespoons of bone meal sprinkled into the bottom of the hole. The philosophy being because it is rich in potassium, it helps plants grow stronger roots. Then fill in the hole and tuck it in for the winter with a layer of mulch. In the spring when the little green shoots poke their heads out, I give them a top dressing of compost or fertilizer. In general, I don’t like to fertilize in the fall since we get so much rain in the winter it can wash a lot of the fertilizer away, not to mention the fact that the plants are going into their dormant period and unlike bears don’t need a bunch of nutrients to do that.
The other question I get a lot about growing bulbs is what to do when they finish blooming. I suggest you prune off any dead flowers but leave the leaves until they turn yellow/brown and then you can cut them to the ground if they are unattractive. This is important as the bulbs need to recharge for next year’s display. But you should know that not all bulbs come back reliably, some are good at coming back each year and others will give you a great show in the first year but then die off or just not be as spectacular in subsequent years. It’s similar to the difference between annuals and perennials plants in your garden, and if you are curious then do a bit of research, or don’t… just enjoy the show and change things up each year.
Squirrels are a bad word when you are talking about planting bulbs. Don’t get me wrong, I love our native Douglas squirrels, they are cute little things with brown/red fur, fluffy tails and a cheeky attitude that I admire. What I don’t love are the Eastern grey squirrels that were introduced into the Lower Mainland years ago and have now completely infiltrated the area. They are bad in my neighborhood, being partial to raiding the garbage bins and jumping out at unsuspecting passers-by. My neighbor nearly had a heart attack the other day as she went to dispose of her garbage and a squirrel jumped right out at her. In short, I consider them “tree-rats” with fluffy tails. Also, they love to dig up and eat your spring bulbs. Grrrr…..
I’ve taken to keeping one of my son’s fully loaded super-soaker squirt cannons at hand so I can “discourage” any squirrels I see sneaking around my garden. But there are more constructive (and possibly saner) ways to deal with squirrels wanting to dine on your spring party. I know… it’s not the best side of me… I’m supposed to be kind and admire the cute little squirrels. But I’m sorry if they are going to dig up and eat my beautiful tulips, then it’s game on fluffy.
The best method to keep the little blighters out of the bulb patch is to physically exclude them. A popular method is to lay wire mesh right over the top of the soil to keep the squirrels from digging. I personally prefer a layer of pinecone or a rock mulch. Bulbs can easily push their way through in the spring but squirrels tend to give the area a pass. I have heard of putting pepper or cayenne on your soil as a way to keep them away, but to be honest it has limited success, so keep it for the chili pot and out of the garden.
You can have a lot of fun with bulbs and there are a few tricks you can use to make the most of them. Plant them en masse, to me there is nothing as pathetic looking than a single tulip flower. Some bulbs just look better when you group them together to get their true visual impact. Just imagine a sea of colour gently swaying in the spring breeze and you will know what I mean.
On the other side of the design spectrum is the natural look. Naturalizing is where you make an effort to have your bulbs look like no effort was made (kind of like putting on makeup). The idea is to make it look like the bulbs just naturally sprung up and have perhaps been growing there for years. You can naturalize bulbs in your garden, or a fun thing to do is put some in your lawn for an unexpected spring show. This is obviously best done with bulbs that have a more perennial tendency, see the list below for some great bulb selections that will work particularly well. A neat planting trick is to toss the bulbs and plant them where they land. It will give you an irregular spacing that will look more natural than you could ever achieve. It is actually harder than you think to achieve a natural randomized planting, our human tendencies to create order inadvertently make you space your bulbs in a visually “artificial” way.
Another great trick to remember is to layer your bulbs. Because bulbs come in a variety of sizes, with corresponding planting depths, and bloom times, from early spring into summer, you can plant them in the same spot and enjoy an ever-changing show that lasts for months. Plant the bigger bulbs, then fill in some soil and plant the smaller bulbs right on top. Don’t stress too much about whether or not you might have planted the smaller ones right over top of the larger ones, they will figure it out and shift slightly to make room to bloom.
My last tip for bulb planting is to use containers, it gives you so much flexibility. You can move them around so you get the most of them while they bloom. Or even just pop them into the garden into an empty spot and give you a WOW factor, then move them out when they fade.
Here is a list of some of my favourite fall bulbs and how to use them. It is by no means a complete list; I often discover new favourites by perusing the bulb section of my local GardenWorks. But if you aren’t sure where to start here is a good place.
Best for early spring and growing in your lawn (they finishing blooming before you need to mow):
The dainty pure white flowers can appear even before the snow disappears
Every year these colourful flowers give me such joy when the doldrums of winter are getting me down.
Best for naturalizing:
Generally smaller and demurer that other tulips but they compensate for that by settling in and coming back year after year. The yellow and white flower of Tulipa tarda, the striking white with a steel blue centre of Tulipa humilis var. Pulchella, and the cheerful pink and yellow of ’Lilac Wonder’ are ones to search out.
Especially the iconic yellow trumpets of ‘King Alfred.’
Grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum)
These adorable little flowers look just like they sound a cluster of purple/blue grape-like flowers can form a spring carpet of blue.
Snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)
The dainty purple or white nodding bells of these mid-spring blooms have a checkered pattern that could make any fashionista swoon.
Glory-of-the-snow (Scilla forbessii)
The early spring star shaped flowers are a vibrant purple/blue but with a centre of pure white.
Best for fragrance:
Range in colour from pure white, to shades of pink, and into purple and blue. Be sure to plant them somewhere you can catch a whiff just when you need it most in the early to mid-spring.
Have a fragrant white flower that is vigorous growing but dainty looking.
Actually bloom in late summer, so technically you can also plant them in the spring, but with our mild winters I like to put them in the ground in the fall so they can develop a sturdy root system before winter dormancy. But they are worth the wait their fragrance will stop you in your tracks.
Best for WOW factor (plant them somewhere you want to make an impact):
Parrot and Peony type tulips
Simply stunning and need to be seen to be believed. Treat them more like annuals and trust me you will enjoy the show. One of my personal favourites is the peony pink blooms of ‘Angelique.’
Are like fireworks in the garden. The purple or white balls of flowers are borne on stems that hold them above other plants so that they seem to float like orbs in the garden. ‘Millennium’ and Allium giganteum are two of my personal favorites.
Sicilian honey lily (Nectaroscordum siculum ssp. bulgaricum)
It’s a bit difficult to say but this allium-like flower is a show stopper. The dainty purple and white bells dangle from a central stem and invite you in for a closer look.
Come in so many different colours and look like a miniature cross between a peony and a rose. You should treat them more like an annual but definitely plant some, they are stunning and the darling of florists everywhere.
Best to see up close (edging a path or in a container):
Are just so cute I almost can’t stand it. Two of my favorites are the classic yellow ‘tête-à-tête,’ and ‘Little Gem.’
Michael’s flower (Fritillaria michailovskyi)
The first time I saw the dainty chocolate purple/brown, gold edged, bell-shaped flowers, I literally lost my mind. I had to grow a pot of them; I was not disappointed. This is a unique and beautiful addition to any garden.
Best for Deer Resistance: