A 'food' gardener takes a little out for flowers

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In the midst of tidying up my yard last weekend and shredding the accumulated mess into more manageable mulch, I found time to plant the spring-flowering bulbs that had arrived through the mail a week earlier. It didn't take long, and I am as sure as I am about anything else that the results will be beautifully gratifying next April.

I am principally a vegetable gardener -- or food gardener, if you will. I love flowers but I don't give them much of my time. That's why I go for the easy growers: marigolds, petunias, and zinnias, and the like, the summertime; and for early spring beauty, crocus, daffodils, and tulips.

Of course, I could add fritillarias and alliums to the easy-to-grow spring-bulb list, too, but I don't have any in my garden yet.

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On occasion, my summer flower gardens get a little ragged, but the spring bulbs are always things of beauty. In my book, you can't miss with bulbs, provided you follow a few basic rules.

What almost guarantees at least first-season success with flowering bulbs is the buld itself.

No matter how ordinary the bulb looks when you get it form the grower or garden center, it represents one of the best packaging deals nature has to offer. The bulb, in fact, contains everything needed to produce a beautiful flower next year. The importance of good soil and fertilizer isn't for next spring's flower, but to enable the plant to produce the bulb that will give you the following year's burst of color.

As a general rule, plant the smaller bulbs between 3 and 4 inches deep and the larger ones -- tulip, daffodil, and hyacinth -- between 6 and 8 inches deep.

Make sure that the soil is well drained. About the only problem you might encounter is rot. If the bulbs stay waterlogged all winter long, they run the risk of rotting. So, if your soil is heavy clay, add sand and organic material to improve drainage.

My very sandy soil presents no such problem, so I dug the requisite holes, threw a handful of compost into each hole, set the bulbs, and half filled each hole with soil. At this stage I watered the bulbs well and then added the remaining soil. Then I added a 4-inch layer of shredded leaves on top.

Bone meal is one of the best fertilizers you can use. It provides many important nutrients slowly over a two-year period. I didn't have any bone meal on hand and didn't feel I could spare the time to go out and get any. Thus, I made do with compost only. I have done this in the past and the rsults have always been satisfactory.

It's getting late, now, to plant spring bulbs in some of the more northerly latitudes. But it can still be done, provided a heavy mulch is applied right away. This will slow down the rate at which the soil freezes and give the bulbs time to develop the roots that will send them off to a racing start next spring.

A few years ago, I delayed planting some tulips until it was too late to crack the already frozen earth. As a result, I planted them first thing in the spring and hoped for the best.

The bulbs will come up, I was told, but "don't expect any flowers this spring. You will have to wait until next year for the flowers."

The fact is, the bulbs did, indeed, come up as predicted, but they also flowered quite delightfully, even though a little later than the long-established bulbs.

A common fallacy is that spring-flowering bulbs should no longer be watered once the flower has died down. The idea, or so the reasoning goes, is to encourage the leaves to die back as well.

Nothing could be more detrimental to next spring's flower crop. It is in the six weeks after flowing that the plants produce the bulbs that will, in turn, provide the next generation of flowers. Simply, the green leaves produce food and energy which are stored in the newly forming bulb for next year's growth. The longer the leaves stay green and healthy in this period, the more energy is stored away in the bulb.

Besides watering in this post-flowering period, this is the time, too, to provide the plants with a balanced fertilizer.

Place the fertilizer in a ring round the plants and scratch it into the surface of the soil. For my part, I mulch all permanent flower beds, which includes the bulbs, with a 3- to 4-inch layer of shredded leaves each fall. The leaves slowly rot down into the soil during the following growing season.

To date, this is the only fertilizer the bulbs have received, and they appear to be doing very well on it, although possibly the addition of a little additional balanced fertilizer may boost the disply even further.

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