Beach bums beware – fall is coming, and winter’s not far behind. But rather than sink into a gloomy mood over the end of summer, sink a few bulbs into the ground to set the stage for a beautiful, blooming spring! Everyone looks forward to the first flowers peeking through the ground (sometimes even poking up through the snow) to let us know that the new season’s arrived. And to enjoy our favorite springtime bulbs like daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, we’ve got to get ’em in the ground in fall.

Daffodils

Use daffodils in a planter to brighten up an otherwise dull corner of your garden.

Photo Credit: Bryce H. Lane

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Some tulips, like the frilly, pink Tulipa ‘Angelique’, can add new textures to your spring garden.

Photo Credit: International Flower Bulb Centre

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Tulips bring new life to a pansy bed at the end of winter.

Photo Credit: Lee Ivy

Autumn is the ideal time to purchase and plant bulbs. And to get the best results, you’ve got to know what to look for. First and foremost, they must be firm. And don’t forget – size matters! The size and number of flowers is directly related to the bigness of the bulb: The larger the bulb, the larger the flower. Don’t worry about loose skins (tunics), because they may actually help the bulb root better. Plus, you can inspect the bulb more thoroughly for disease. So don’t be shy when pillaging through that bin of bulbs at your garden center. Grab the biggest, firmest ones you can!

Then get ready to plant.

It’s best to get your bulbs in the ground when soil temperatures fall below 60 degrees F. In my neck of the woods (North Carolina), this is often around late October or November. The farther north you live, the earlier you can safely plant.

Why is fall the best time to plant? Turns out, it’s just another cool plant fact of life. Many bulbs develop their root system in the fall and do so by accumulating chilling hours. I won’t go into detail, but basically the bulb must spend so many hours below a certain temperature in order to produce a flower. Isn’t that wild?!

Once the soil is cool enough, dig your holes – and make sure your bulbs will have good drainage to help protect them from rotting. Regardless of soil type, mix in some organic matter for the best blooms. If your soils are really heavy and poorly draining, consider planting your bulbs in amended raised beds to help them reach their fullest potential. And don’t forget to loosen the soil under them.

How deep should you dig? Great question! Planting depth depends on the size of the bulb. As a general rule, bury your bulb two to three times as deep as it is tall. Measure from the tip of the bulb to its base. While it’s a little work to get them that far down into the ground, it’s important – you’ve got to plant them deep enough to protect them from frost, digging animals and other types of physical damage.

When it comes to spacing your bulbs, there are a few general guidelines to follow: Large bulbs should be spaced 3-6 inches apart, and small bulbs just 1-2 inches. Always remember to plant the pointy end up, because it’s the fat part that develops the roots.

Another key to terrific-looking spring blooms is good fertilization. This encourages your bulbs to perennialize, which means they’ll flower for several years without replacement or division. There are two ways to fertilize bulbs. Use whichever method you’re most comfortable with. First, you can use just one application of a slow-release fertilizer in fall when you plant. To do this, incorporate the fertilizer into the rooting area at a rate of 1 rounded tablespoon per square foot. (This is my kind of fertilization – do it once, and then forget about it!)

The second recommended method is to incorporate bone meal and a soluble fertilizer into the rooting area at planting time. If you use a 10-10-10 fertilizer, apply 1 rounded teaspoon per square foot (be sure to incorporate it well). Come spring, you’ll need to apply the same fertilizer at the same rate on the soil surface as soon as the bulbs show their first shoots. Whichever way you choose, fertilizer is a critical step in bulb gardening!

And just like planting any new plant, you’ve got to water these babies in. A little trick for getting your bulbs watered in correctly is to cover them with roughly half the soil you removed when digging the hole, water thoroughly, then finish covering them up with the rest of the soil. Add a 2-3 inch layer of mulch, and off you go. Depending on fall rains, you may need to water occasionally if the weather’s dry.

The next step is just to wait and weather winter. When spring comes, enjoy your lovely flowers to their fullest. Once they’ve bloomed, remove only the flower – if you must. To help your bulbs perennialize, you need to resist all attempts of cutting them back. I know it’s so very tempting to whack the entire plant down to the ground once it’s done blooming, but you’ve got to have self-control. Leaving the foliage is essential because as the old leaves die, they produce food that’s stored in the bulb to be used for the following year’s blossoms. Wait to remove the leaves until they’ve yellowed, fallen over and come loose when slightly tugged. If you practice self-control, you’ll be rewarded year after year with terrific tulips, dancing daffodils and happenin’ hyacinths.

So even though the days are getting shorter and you’re starting to feel a slight nip in the air, remember – there’s no need to fear Old Man Winter. Frankly, without him, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our favorite bulbs – those sweet harbingers of springtime.