Tulips, daffodils, hyacinth—all, harbingers of spring. And why not? They’re pretty enough. And they have a charming familiarity that makes them a classic choice for gardeners looking to set the stage for a springtime show. Perhaps you’re the dramatic type, looking for something exotic to excite your landscape. If so, give not-so-ordinary bulbs a try. They’re as easy to plant and maintain as their more commonplace cousins, but fit the bill when it comes to expressing a green thumb’s inner wild child.
Lucky for the renegade gardener, you don’t have to look far to find these special bulbs. That’s because the market has done an excellent job reacting to consumer demand for the delightfully unusual. Purchasing anything from Bulgarian ornamental onion to Grecian windflower is a snap with all the various mail-order catalogs and online storefronts at our fingertips today.
But with temperatures plummeting and the holidays just around the corner, planting is probably the last thing on most people’s minds. If you garden in the North, however, it’s literally “last call” when it comes to planting spring-blooming bulbs. That’s because, to put on one heck of an early season display, spring-blooming “hardy” bulbs must experience a cool, dormant period—about 12 to 16 weeks—to bloom. A good rule of thumb for northern gardeners is to plant bulbs six weeks before the ground freezes.
Southern gardeners, on the other hand, can plant hardy bulbs in early January after they’ve been chilled by artificial means, such as in a refrigerator crisper (take note, however, that gasses from ripening fruit can damage the bulbs). Or gardeners in these milder areas can look for bulbs bred to adapt to their short, temperate winters.
Here are some other basics that are good to know before you plant any bulb:
Plant bulbs pointy end up. While it may seem simple enough, planting bulbs upside down is an easy mistake. The pointed end is where the stem originates, while the root end is generally flatter and looks like the base of an onion. While a lucky few may break through the soil surface and bloom, more often than not, the plant wastes oodles of energy doing so, resulting in a lackluster display.
Plant at the appropriate depth. Large bulbs like tulips and daffodils should be planted about 6 and 8 inches deep, respectively. Plant crocus, hyacinth, and like smaller bulbs 3 to 5 inches deep. As for spacing, a good rule of thumb is to set bulbs three to four times their diameter apart. Be sure to give them a good soaking after planting!
Mulch. A couple inches of mulch, such as evergreen boughs, straw, or marsh hay, reduces the risk of early sprouting and other weather-related complications. Just be sure to wait until the ground freezes before applying.
Leave on fading foliage. Although it may look unattractive, it’s important to keep the leaves on the plants until they brown or at least 6 weeks have passed since they bloomed. The leaves direct energy to the bulb, essentially feeding it, which is why you’re able to enjoy blooms year after year.
Plant in groups. While individual bulb blooms are beautiful unto themselves, there are ways to up the ante when it comes to impact. Best planted in groups of three or more, a mass of bulbs concentrates colors and creates a focal point that’s hard to ignore. The same can be said when bulbs are used as a ground cover, planted in border beds, or displayed as a “bouquet” in planters.
If planting a variety of bulbs, be sure to plant low-growing bulbs in front of taller varieties, especially if they bloom around the same time.
6 “Out-of-the-Box” Bulbs to Plant Today!
1. Allium (Allium)
‘Silver Spring’ has tiny white blossoms with pink-purple centers; ‘Fireworks’ has a distinct form that earns its namesake.
2. Grecian windflower (Anemone blanda)
Try ‘Mixed’ for daisy-like flowers in a variety of colors like blue, pink, and white.
3. Checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris)
‘Saturnus’ boast reddish purple flowers, while ‘Charon’ has deep purple blooms.
4. Indian hyacinth (Camassia)
Plant ‘Blue Melody’ for impressive spikes of dark violet-blue flowers and variegated foliage.
5. Crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis)
Ranging in colors from scarlet red to yellow, its nodding, bell-shaped flowers rest beneath a “crowns” of stiff green leaves.
6. Species tulips (Tulipa)
Known for their uniqueness and ability to naturalize well, species tulips are the wild cousin of the hybrid variety. Try ‘Rockgarden Mixed Colors’ for an assortment of brightly colored blooms on short stems.
Also check out how to save bulbs.
In most parts of the country, nonhardy summer bulbs, such as gladiolas, dahlias, caladiums, and elephant ears, won’t survive over the winter. But all is not lost: You can dig up the bulbs, store them over the winter, and replant them next spring. A lot of work? Not really, especially considering the money you’ll save.
These bulbs (technically, rhizomes, corms, and tubers as well as bulbs) originate from tropical or subropical climates and will die if left in the ground in regions where the ground freezes. When should you dig them up? Look at the foliage; if the leaves are green they are still working to provide food to replenish the bulb. Once the foliage begins to turn yellow, its job is done, indicating that it’s time to dig up the bulbs. This usually occurs around the first light frost.
Here’s the procedure:
Using a spade or fork, very carefully loosen the soil around the plants and gently lift the bulbs from the ground. Gently brush off excess soil and discard any bulbs that show signs of disease or rot. Leaving the foliage attached, hang or spread out the bulbs is a warm, dry location, out of direct sun, to “cure” for seven to ten days. Once bulbs have cured, trim the foliage down 1/2 inch from the bulb.
Some gardeners protect the cured bulbs from disease by dusting them with a fungicide, such as sulfur, although I’ve never done this and have had continued success over the years. The largest bulbs will perform best next year; you can compost the smaller ones or store them for planting next spring, knowing they may not produce many flowers.
Stored bulbs must remain dry and receive good air circulation. Avoid storing bulbs in sealed, air-tight containers because this can lead to moisture build-up and rot. Most bulbs store best where temperatures remain around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool, dry basements or unheated garages that stay above freezing are often good locations.
There are several ways to store the bulbs. One method is to place the bulbs in a box of peat moss, sand, or sawdust, spreading them out so the bulbs aren’t touching each other. Don’t stack bulbs deeper than three layers. (My father-in-law places his bulbs in plastic mesh onion bags and hangs them in the garage.) Label the bulbs by type and flower color before storing. Check stored bulbs occasionally throughout the winter and discard any that show signs of rot.
Here are some specifics for popular summer bulbs:
Caladium. In all but the warmest regions (USDA zones 10 and 11), dig up caladiums before the first fall frost and allow plants to dry. Cut foliage back to an inch, then pack the bulbs loosely in peat moss. Keep slightly warmer than other stored bulbs—50 to 60 F.
Canna. You can leave cannas in the ground in USDA zones 7 and warmer. In colder regions, cut plants back to 6 inches tall after the first fall frost kills the foliage. Carefully lift each clump of rhizomes and store them in one of the ways described above. Or, wrap rhizomes in newspapers and place in a box.
Dahlia. Dahlias are only hardy to USDA zone 8; in colder regions you’ll need to dig and store the tubers. In autumn, after frost kills the foliage but before the ground freezes, cut the plants back to a few inches in height. Carefully lift clumps, brush off any clinging soil, allow the tubers to cure for a week or so, then put them in a plastic-lined box filled with perlite or peat moss, spacing them so that none are touching. Store boxes in a dry area at 45 to 55 F. Dahlia tubers mustn’t dry out completely; moisten packing material slightly if necessary.
Elephant ear (alocasia and colocasia). These plants must be dug and stored or brought indoors in regions colder than USDA zone 9. Bring container-grown plants indoors and treat them as houseplants. Or, lift tubers, cure, and store in peat moss in a cool, dry place.
Gladiolas. In zones 7 and 8, mulch beds with a layer of hay or straw for winter protection. In colder regions, dig corms before the first frost. Remove excess soil, cut the stalks to within an inch of the corms, and let them cure for 1 to 2 weeks in a warm, airy location. Then remove and discard the oldest bottom corms and store the large, new corms in plastic mesh bags in a well-ventilated, 35- to 45-F room.
Tuberous begonia. Since the tubers are only hardy to USDA zone 9, in colder regions dig them before a frost and let the tubers dry. Store them in a cool (35 to 45 F) location in dry peat moss.
Article reprinted courtesy of the National Gardening Association.
For 11 years Rebecca hosted NBC’s nationally syndicated show Rebecca’s Garden. She’s been the lifestyles and gardening contributor for ABC’s Good Morning America since 1998, is the author of the book Rebecca’s Garden: Four Seasons to Grow On, and now publishes her own magazine, Seasons by Rebecca.