The straight scoop on bulbs

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When Jack Frost nips at the garden, it's time to think spring and plant bulbs. Here's what you need to know to have a lush and lovely display of bulbs in your yard next year:

The best bulbs. Look for solid bulbs that don't have nicks, cuts, mildew, or a sour odor. Don't be concerned if the brown tunic (covering) is missing; it won't affect the bulb's growth. The larger the bulb, the bigger the flowers it produces.

Start with the soil. Bulbs perform best in well-drained soil that contains plenty of organic matter. If that doesn't describe your soil, mix it with compost, finely ground pine bark, Milorganite, or sharp builders' sand.

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Which end is up? It's hard to recognize which is the top and which is the bottom of some spring-flowering bulbs. But don't worry. Even if you plant them upside down, they'll still come up.

How deep to plant. The rule of thumb is three times the bulb's depth (measure the hole from the base of the bulb) and three times its width apart. Plant more shallowly in clay soil.

Forget the bone meal. Because of changes in the way it's made, bone meal no longer provides the nutrients bulbs need. A better choice is to sprinkle slow-release Bulb Booster or Bulb Mate (which is organic) on top of the soil after planting. If you put the fertilizer in the planting hole, you can "burn" the bulbs.

Fertilize in fall only. Bulbs aren't growing in spring and can't utilize plant food then.

Squirrel-resistant bulbs. The best are daffodils, which are poisonous to rodents (as well as deer). Also try hyacinths and Siberian squills.

Tulips that return reliably. Get tulips to last longer in your yard by choosing Darwin hybrids or species tulips, planting them eight to 12 inches deep, and fertilizing every fall.

Bulbs that can take the heat. In warm climates, you'll have better results by refrigerating the bulbs for six to eight weeks before planting. Best for Zones 8 and 9 are jonquils, tazetta-type daffodils, allium, Greek anemones, amaryllis, freesia, snowdrops, and spring starflower. If you must have tulips, choose early-flowering kinds.

Spread out the season. Choose bulbs that bloom early, midseason, and late. And be aware that bulbs planted this fall will bloom two weeks later next spring than previously planted bulbs.

Don't touch those leaves. As flowers fade, it's good to cut them off, but don't remove, bend, or braid the stem or the browning foliage, which nourish the bulb for next year. If you can't stand it, grow other plants close to the bulbs to hide the unsightliness.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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