Take advantage of bargain bulbs with this trick

Spring-flowering bulbs are a bargain in late fall and it's not too late to plant them if you use this trick.

Photo courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey.
A wide shallow bowl, potting soil, and some bulbs create a sleight-of-hand spring show.

Here’s a trick that allows you to take advantage of the money-saving late offers from Internet bulb companies like Brent and Becky’s or Old House Gardens. Or you can snag bags of orphan bulbs locally for rock-bottom prices and have them bloom in your garden next spring.

Water features – especially the naturalistic kind with waterfalls, streams or pools – often have planting pockets among the rocks where the soil is already improved and drainage is terrific. These spaces are ideal for bulbs of all kinds.

Also, you could consider other areas around your garden where you’d love to see spring bulbs popping up.

But wait, you say—it’s beyond bulb planting time in your garden. You’ve already hung up your gardening gloves for the season.

Not quite yet.

I learned this sleight-of-hand bulb planting from my friend Cindee Eichengreen, garden designer extraordinaire. She’s combined years of down-on-her-knees garden practicality with the showcase needs of designing for high-end places like The Oregon Garden and Moonstone Hotels.

Creating Cindee’s bulb bowl
Here’s Cindee’s great tip: Plant bulbs in wide shallow bowls, overwinter in a protected place, and then in spring, slide the contents of the bowls into similarly sized planting holes right where you need the color and form most.

Grab whatever orphan bulbs you can find — this is the time to try out ones you’ve never grown before. Or perhaps you’ve already got a collection of bulbs that never made it into the ground before your flagging interest or winter caught up with you — yes, let’s admit it, our gardening enthusiasm does wax and wane.

Locate a few wide shallow plastic bowls — the kind sold as “color spots” in the spring works well — and a bag of good potting soil. I also add organic bulb food.

Fill the bottom of the bowls with potting soil. Mix in a designated amount of bulb food. Plant your bulbs to appropriate depths — big bulbs may be sticking up slightly at the top. (I usually put all the same kind of bulbs in one container.)

Cover with more soil blended with another shot of bulb food. I label each pot with a metal plant tag and water thoroughly before storing in my slightly heated dark garage.During the winter, I add additional water if the soil dries out over time.

This planting is a lot easier than slogging away to get them in the ground with cold Oregon rain pouring down my neck.

In early spring, or when growth starts poking through, I bring the containers out to the sunlight and let the bulbs get on with growing.

If the garden isn’t yet ready for digging, the bowls become sprightly spring décor, but as soon as I can, I note the empty spaces among the rocks. I dig a shallow hole approximately the same shape as the container, and gently slide the whole works out and into the ground. Instant spring beauty, just where and when you need it.

This is also a help for those of us who can’t picture ahead of time how bulbs are going to look among their planting companions.

After care
I often leave the smaller bulbs to sort themselves out where I first planted them.  They return very nicely year after year. But for the larger bulbs, when I’m ready to add something else to that spot, I dig up my bargain beauties, amend the soil, space the bulbs out and replant to their optimum depth.

By then, working the ground has become easier than it was the previous fall. The weather is also much better for gardening, and my enthusiasm has returned after a winter’s rest.

Mary-Kate Mackey, co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She writes about water in the garden for Diggin’ It. 

Editor’s note: To read more by Mary-Kate, check our blog archive. Gardening articles on a variety of topics can be found at the Monitor’s main gardening page. Also see our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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