Expert tips for choosing spring bulbs this fall

Hints to help you get the most from your tulips and daffodils.

Photos courtesy of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center.
The promise of spring: Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other spring-flowering bulbs need to be planted now.

Almost everyone loves tulips, daffodils and the other spring-blooming flower bulbs. It’s important to remember, however, that fall is the time to plant them.

For such a big payoff in spring, though, fall planting is an exceptionally easy task, especially when gardening in pots or prepared beds.

Just dig some holes, drop in bulbs, enjoy next spring!

Bulbs are widely available now from mail-order sources, garden centers, supermarkets, and national retailers. But no matter where bulbs are purchased, a few simple tips can make anyone a bulb expert.

Here's advice from the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in Danby, Vt.:

Play with flower colors. The fun part of bulb gardening is dreaming up fabulous bloom schemes. The color palette is endless. Just choose what you like best.

How about rich purple tulips (Purple Prince) intermixed with purple-flamed orange tulips (Prinses Irene), or fragrant deep blue hyacinths (Blue Jacket) with jaunty yellow daffodils (Dutch Master).

For an early-blooming ‘go girl’ color combo, try pairing low-growing Pink Glory of the Snow (Chionodoxa luciliae 'Pink Giant') as an underplanting for taller orange tulips with fuchsia stripes Christmas Orange).

Also consider bloom times. There are actually three bloom seasons in spring: early-, mid- and late-season. Choose bulbs that bloom at different times and, with minimal effort, you can have month after month of spring color.

Plant low-growing bulbs, such as grape hyacinths, in front of taller bulbs such as daffodils, or mingle the bulbs together for a more naturalistic effect.

The bigger the bulb, the bigger the flower. Flower bulbs are sold by size or caliber. This number is usually given in centimeters and it refers to the circumference of the bulb measured at its thickest part.

There are basically three sizes for most spring-flowering bulbs: small, medium, and top size. Tulips, for example, are considered small bulbs if they are 10 to 11 centimeters around, medium bulbs are 11 to 12 centimeters, and top-size bulbs are more than 12 centimeters around.

To qualify for export under Dutch law, tulip bulbs must be at least 10 centimeters around (except for naturally smaller species and botanical tulip bulbs, which must be at least eight centimeters around).

Plant top size bulbs in containers or along a walk or by an entrance, places where you want the biggest show.

For plantings viewed from a distance, smaller bulbs of the same variety are a good buy. They’re fine, quality bulbs but produce smaller flowers and, thus, cost less, while still having a big impact when planted en masse in the landscape.

Firm bulbs are generally healthy bulbs. Give bulbs a squeeze, the way you would when choosing fruit or onions, to make sure that they’re firm and healthy.

Just as with local produce, it’s OK for bulbs to have a few marks on them, but reject bulbs that are mushy or show signs of mold or fungus as these bulbs were probably mishandled at some point.

Many bulbs, especially tulips, have a papery onion-skin covering called a tunic. If a bulb’s tunic is cracked and peeling, or even gone completely and exposing the bulb underneath, it’s nothing to worry about. A torn or cracked tunic may even help a bulb to root more quickly.

Bulbs are forgiving, pre-programmed by nature to grow and thrive, no matter how irreverently they are treated. Get them in the ground and they want to grow.

Still for optimal treatment, bulbs should be planted at least six weeks before hard frosts hit in your area. This gives the bulbs time to root and establish themselves before winter.

While it’s best not to plant too late and hamper rooting, it’s no better to plant too early as too-warm soil can lead to fungus or disease problems for bulbs.

A good rule of thumb is to plant bulbs when the average fall nighttime temperatures in your area reach and stay in the range of 40 degrees F. to 50 degrees F.

At that point the soil temperature should be just perfect for tucking bulbs in for their winter’s rest underground.

When you purchase bulbs early and plant later in the fall, store the bulbs in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Once planting conditions become optimal, plant them as soon as possible. The main thing is to plant them!

If you miss planting your bulbs in an optimal period, don’t save them to plant in spring or next fall. Bulbs aren’t dormant like seeds and won’t survive out of the ground indefinitely.

Even if you find an unplanted sack of tulips or daffodils in January or February, plant them then (in the garden or pots). No matter what, they’re better off in the ground or a chilled pot than wasting away in the garage or cupboard.

Flower bulbs are survivors by nature’s design. Every year stories abound of bulbs that bloom after being planted under the most improbable circumstances.

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