For decades, I’ve been planting spring-flowering bulbs. Some come back every year, some disappear after a few years, and some I treat as annuals. The result? Just when mud season is about to swallow me whole, I am rewarded with flowers to enjoy outdoors — and indoors in a vase. Now is the time to plant bulbs.
First, some basics: All bulbs should bloom fine the first year. To come back, most need sunshine and well-drained soil. Most little bulbs will do fine in part shade.
I treat tulips as annuals, even in the best of circumstances. Not only that, squirrels will watch you plant them, and then get right to work digging them up as soon as you settle into a chair with a cup of tea. Deer will eat the blossoms, come spring. Daffodils are a better bet.
At the end of Bill Clinton’s term I got to interview the White House gardener, Dale Haney. He told me that they plant thousands of tulips each year on the White House grounds. I noticed lots of big, fat gray squirrels that seemed quite fearless, so I asked him how they kept them from eating the tulips.
The trick, he said, is to plant masses together, and then spread chicken wire over the bed before you finish filling the hole with soil. Lay out the wire mesh an inch or two beneath the soil. That way a pesky squirrel will run into a barrier. And somehow, the tulip buds will find their way through the holes.
If you do that, and I have, make rectangular beds roughly the width of your chicken wire. I first tried a circular planting, and cut the chicken wire — which turns into something like razor wire when you cut it. I should have worn elbow-high leather gloves! I have decided it’s not worth the bother.
The other remedy Mr. Haney suggested is to feed the squirrels. A fat squirrel is a lazy squirrel, he said, so feed them lots of corn. Your tax dollars do that at the White House. Huh.
Daffodils are generally long-lived. They are mildly poisonous, so rodents don’t eat them. And, although daffodils will bloom in shady or half-shade places, they really do a whole lot better in full sun, with good drainage. No bulbs want to grow under pine trees or other evergreens.
The best way to plant bulbs is to dig a big hole and plant a lot of bulbs all at once. For daffodils or tulips, dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep, 24 inches wide to 36 inches long. Have a wheelbarrow or tarp to place the soil on, so you don’t make a mess on the lawn to clean up.
Add an inch or more of compost, and then sprinkle some bulb booster or organic fertilizer in the bottom of the hole. Loosen the soil in the bottom of the hole with a hand tool, mixing the fertilizer and compost with the soil. Next, arrange the bulbs in the hole. Plant them pointy end up.
I like a mass of blossoms, so I plant bulbs close together. I read the directions for the bulb variety I am planting, and then plant them a little closer together. Pay attention to planting depth, too. Smaller bulbs like crocus need much less depth than big, fat daffodils.
Most bulb plants reproduce by growing offsets, or little bulbs that develop alongside the mother bulb. After a year or two, the offsets will bloom, too, and you can dig up the bulbs and divide them after blooming if you want. I never have done that, but I remember my parents did when I was a boy.
What else should you try planting? Snowdrops bloom in early March for me, and are a must. Start with 50 bulbs — they are not very dramatic in a small clump. They do drop seeds and will show up downhill from where you plant them in a few years.
Glory-of-the-snow is nearly as early as snowdrops, but instead of white, these are purple or blue or even pink. And they look up, not down like snowdrops, so you can see their petals and interior better. Scilla, another favorite of mine, are a deep purple, and look down. Small, but intense.
Last year I planted several Camassia, a late spring- or early summer-blooming bulb plant. They were wonderful. Each plant produces a few flower spikes that are 2 or 3 feet tall, and are covered with blue or purple florets. Very dramatic. They are hardy to Zone 4. Unlike most bulb plants, they do well in wet or moist soils in winter.
Alliums are in the onion family, are wonderful, and are not bothered by rodents. Some are huge, with balls nearly a foot wide that are airy and open, filled with little florets. The big ones can be expensive ($4 a bulb or more) but last a long time and are very dramatic. Even a half a dozen big ones will make a statement.
So get off the couch, get outside and plant some bulbs. Do so, and come spring you’ll be sending me an e-mail saying how glad you are that you did.
You may reach Henry Homeyer by e-mail at email@example.com.