Plant bulbs in the fallfor blooms in the spring

Posted: October 12, 2013

The Winchester Star

The appearance and color is important.
Planting depth is two to three times the width of bulb.
Place the bulb in the hole the right side up.
Mount Everest alliums bloom above hostas and shrubs. Beautiful and sturdy with a flair for the dramatic, alliums are a graceful way to add color and architectural dimension to the garden. (Photo by Dig.Drop.DoneAssociated Press)
Pink hyacinths are popular spring blooms.
Purple Alliums make a nice splash in the garden.
One of the first spring blooms is the narcissus.

Winchester — Avid gardeners will spend the next few months itching to get their hands dirty once winter is over.

Good gardeners know that if they want that opportunity as early as possible, they can get started now by planting spring-blooming bulbs, said Bryan Shepherd, manager of gardens and grounds for the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.

Whether someone is an experienced master gardener or a novice with a spade in his or her hand for the first time, bulbs are an easy option that doesn’t require a great deal of time or effort, Shepherd said. “It’s a good way to put color in a garden so you have early color while you are waiting for summer — a little early excitement.”

The time is now

If people are even considering planting bulbs, now is the time to start digging. The ideal planting window for bulbs stretches from mid-September to the first or second week in November.

“It is fall now. It’s the time when leaves are falling, winter is coming, and everything is winding down,” he said. “Now is the ideal time to get your spring bulbs divided or planted.”

Fall planting allows bulbs the much needed time to develop a sturdy root system before they begin above ground growing. The cold weather jump starts the process for plant development and flowering. “You want to make sure they experience some of that cold snap,” he said.

Choosing bulbs

When deciding what bulbs to plant, the appearance and color of a flower will be paramount for most gardeners, said Carrie Whitacre, assistant curator for herbaceous gardens at Blandy Experimental Farm in Boyce.

But people also need to consider color combinations, the height of the plants, the bloom time, and possible pests.

Bloom time can vary greatly depending on the plant, she said. By planting bulbs that bloom at different times, you can stagger them to create a garden with color from as early as February into the summer.

“You can start with things that bloom in the late winter, in February and March,” she said. “One of the first one that comes up is Winter Aconite. That is going to be one of the first ones to bloom in late February.”

Glory-of-the-Snow and Snowdrop are also very early bloomers, sometimes even coming up under the snow, she said.

After that, there are a variety of bulbs that bloom in mid- to late spring, Shepherd said. The list of these is vast, but some good ones for this area are crocus, anemone, hyacinth (wonderful scent) and allium.

Tulips are a great looking flower, but if a gardener has any kind of deer problem, he wouldn’t even bother. Deer dig them up and “eat them like candy.”

Deer don’t like daffodils and avoid them at all costs, so if someone wants to try tulips, they might make good companion plants, he said. “Daffodils are a miracle plant in my estimation.”

Buying bulbs

The most common types of bulbs can be found at any garden store and many grocery stores, Shepherd said.

For more variety, he recommends catalogs such as John Scheepers bulb catalog, which sells hundreds of different types of bulbs. “But it is all to your taste.”

Conveniently, a bulb sale will be held as part of ArborFest, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Blandy Experimental Farm, Whitacre said.

The sale will feature four types of daffodils — the Falconet (yellow petals, orange cup), the Pink Charm (white petal, apricot cup), the Gigantic Star (yellow petal and cup) and Wisley (white petal, gold cup).

Just the right spot

Bulbs should be planted in an area with full sun and good drainage “because that is what they require to grow and bloom their best,” Whitacre said.

If they are not planted in well drained soil, such as being put at the bottom of a hill with too much runoff, they are likely to rot, she said.

While determining the layout of a garden is entirely subject, bulbs often look best when they appear to be growing naturally.

When deciding where to plant them, she recommends throwing them lightly in the air and then planting them where they land. “I know it sounds silly, but that will look more natural than if you plant them in little rows,” she said.

When Shepherd plants them, he likes to put the bulbs in a clump of three, spaced apart from other groupings. “Do them in odd numbers because it is more natural.”

Either way you go, look at it like a blank canvas and try to imagine what the layout will look once the flowers come up. “Imagine it is the second week in May and these little rascals aren’t so ugly,” he said.

Especially for people who will dig the bulbs up later or split them, remember to put little stakes in the ground to mark where they were buried, he said.


The general rule for planting depth is usually two to three times the width of the bulb, Whitacre said. “So if a bulb is 1 inch wide, you would want it 3 inches into the ground.”

If bulbs are planted too deep, gardeners run the risk of them never coming up. Too shallow and they might be dug up by animals or run the risk of drying out because of sun and wind.

Place the bulb in the hole making sure to have the right side up (usually point up, roots down), Shepherd said. The bottom of the bulb should rest firmly on the bottom of the hole.

Bulbs don’t take much soil preparation or added amendments, he said. He likes to add a little Espoma Bulb-tone, which is an organic plant food specifically formulated for bulbs and tubers with low amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

“It is water soluble, which means it is more readily available to the plant,” he said. “You don’t want to shoot this full of Miracle Grow.”


Besides deer, other animals such as squirrels and rabbits will dig up bulbs, although not always to eat them, Whitacre said. “If you find your bulbs, you can put them back in the ground. They are really pretty tough.”

Volves (small rodents) can get into crocuses, so Shepherd adds pulverized lime stone gravel in the bottom of the hole, a handful of Bulb-tone, and then the bulb.

Boring insects lay eggs on a plant or at its base and the larvae hatch and bore into the bulbs, he said. With these, insecticides are the best weapon.


Bulbs tend to let gardeners know there is a problem by simply not blooming, Shepherd said. If bulbs are too crowded, often there will be blooms on the outer ring of a clump but only foliage in the center. “They have already pulled a lot of the nutrients out, and there is so much competition.”

Fall is the best time to split bulbs, he said. Dig them up gently, making sure not to damage them. Work them apart by hand, discarding the ones that are shriveled or damaged. Then replant them in a new spot.

Doing this also might reveal a pest problem, so look for signs that something is eating or infecting the bulbs, he said.


Looking far into the future, you have had a beautiful bloom, but it is now fading. In some flowers, removing dead blooms induces the plant to produce new ones in the same season, Shepherd said.

With bulb plants, deadheading only prevents them from making seeds, he said. As a result, all of that energy goes back into the bulb to make it healthy for next year’s flower growth.

But deadheading is all you should do, he said. The dying plant that comes after isn’t attractive, but it needs that time to store energy back in the bulb for the next year. “If you cut them back when they are green, you run the risk of zapping their energy and they might not come back as brilliant next year.”

— Contact Laura McFarland at