In spring, one year hence seems so very far away. Yet it is in early spring that we need to asses the future for our spring-blooming bulbs.
Who hasn’t walked about in spring, viewing their crocuses and daffodils and made a mental note that one place or another needs more bulbs? And who ever remembers that mental note when fall planting time comes? Trusting such as this to memory doesn’t seem the most efficient way to plan our spring gardens. There are alternatives.
Spring-blooming bulbs are planted in fall for bloom the following spring. So when adding to existing gardens and bulb beds, it helps to know where exactly to plant and where sufficient bulbs already exist. The best and most foolproof method here involves setting little stakes or some kind of markers in bare spots that would benefit from additional bulbs.
But this has one big drawback. It ruins the aesthetics. A beautiful spring flower garden full of stakes and markers somehow seems less eye pleasing. And later in late spring and into summer, the stakes or markers become even more of an eyesore. If you can live with this, then by all means go for it. Come fall, you will know exactly where to place your new bulbs. And if you write on the markers, you’ll know exactly which kind of bulb to plant. Indeed, a foolproof but somewhat cumbersome method.
A somewhat less accurate but much easier method of determining where to put those new bulbs has become my favorite. In spring, I take my digital camera and photograph my woodland spring-flowering bulb garden. That way come fall, I can just look at the photos and get a pretty accurate idea of where the barren patches exist. I usually just open the pictures up on my computer to view them. But for a more accurate estimate, it helps to print out the photo and take it with you as you walk about outside.
Knowing exactly where to place spring-flowering bulbs has an economic benefit, too. Since most bulbs reproduce in-situ, they quickly fill in thin areas. So evenly spacing bulbs rather than drilling huge numbers in a willy-nilly fashion and hoping for the best not only requires fewer bulbs, it also makes for a more well-spaced garden, one that looks professionally done.
Spring-blooming bulbs belong to a family, or group of plants called geophytes. Geophytes, whether composed of bulbs, tubers, corms or rhizomes, all utilize their underground parts as places to store their energy throughout the off season and thus bloom again when spring returns. This habit underscores the reason we should not trim our spent bulbs, since the energy from the above-ground parts returns to the underground portion to contribute to ongoing growth. It’s OK to remove faded flowers, since that will keep the bulbs from trying to ripen their seeds and instead, devote all their energy toward forming and strengthening next year’s bulbs.
While gardeners have a wealth of spring-blooming bulbs from which to choose, we in Maine are somewhat limited because of cold winter temperatures. Some old-time favorites don’t persist for more than a few years at most before dying out. In much of Maine, tulips and hyacinths must be renewed regularly. Plants that do last for more than one season often fail to fill out completely, especially hyacinths. In general, it’s best to treat these bulbs as annuals.
But we do have some tried-and-true perennial spring-flowering bulbs that are reliable and trustworthy. These include but certainly are not limited to the many varieties of crocus and daffodils. Both require extended periods of cold weather in order to flower in spring.
Look upon hardiness zone (these show average lowest-possible winter temperatures) maps seen in seed catalogues with a jaundiced eye. Since these companies are in the business of selling bulbs, it makes sense for them to offer somewhat hopeful low temperatures on their maps. For the most accurate indicator of average low temperatures where you live, consult a USDA hardiness zone map. These are available in gardening books, from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service and also, online from a variety of sources.
Even then, mini-climates, little ecosystems borne of local conditions and geography, often stray quite far from temperatures quoted on the USDA map. At best, any of these maps are just guides and they certainly don’t have the final say on what temperatures are possible in your area.
So given a general idea of our likely minimum temperatures, we can pretty safely select our favorite spring-blooming bulbs.
Many of my favorite catalog companies have already run out of the most commonly called-for varieties of spring-flowering bulbs. The run begins in August and by mid-September, stocks, particularly of collections of bulbs, grow thin. So if you wish to plant bulbs but haven’t yet gathered in a supply, the best bet will be your local garden center.
Also, many chains tend to have bulbs on hand until well into October, so if your favorite garden store has already run out, head to a chain store and hope for the best.
In addition to crocus and daffodils, some of the smaller spring bulbs offer color to an otherwise drab, early-spring landscape. Snowdrops, for instance, do well and as their name suggests, bloom very early, sometimes while patches of snow still cover the ground. Also don’t neglect native spring-flowering bulbs, either. Jack-in-the-pulpit, trilliums and trout lilies all do well in our Maine climate. Native bulbs are usually available either by mail-order or from garden centers as specialty plants.
As per places to plant, your imagination is the only limiting factor. But in addition to plots of ground (such as open woodland areas) that are dedicated solely to bulbs, remember that spring-flowering bulbs lend much-needed color and cheer to otherwise dull-looking areas. For instance, a swath of crocus planted under a deciduous tree on a front lawn quickly becomes a much-anticipated sight when in bloom.
So having decided where and what to plant, we still have plenty of time to get our bulbs in the ground. It’s always best to follow the directions that come with groups of bulbs or bulb collections. But lacking specific directions, the rule of three will work fine. That is, plant bulbs three times their height deep and three time their width apart from each other.
Finally, even those with minimal space can have spring-flowering bulbs. These do just fine when planted in containers. A few hints here include making sure a container is at least 16 inches in diameter and 12 inches deep. This is the minimum, though, and there is no maximum size.
Plant your containers as soon as possible this month and when winter hits and ground freezes, thickly cover your containers with a mulch of fir boughs or even dried hardwood leaves. The mulch will keep your bulbs from heaving out of the potting soil during warm spells in winter and later in late winter and early spring.
In spring, wait until the plants have emerged and have grown at least one inch tall before removing the mulch. Then sit back and enjoy the splendor of spring-flowering bulbs. And know that if you select the right bulbs, they will live on to cheer you for many more years to come.