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The Times
  • David Robson: Plant those bulbs now for spring beauty

  • So, thoughts now turn to spring and hopefully bright, vivid colors dotting the landscape. Bulbs are the way to go in the long run, especially if you choose those that come up year after year without much effort on your part. Even the ones that need to be replanted more often can still lift the spirits after winter’s doldrums.

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  • The hot, dry weather in 2012 zapped the energy out of plants and those striving for the green thumb. Just about everything else left for the year involves garden cleanup and winter preparation. Dreary.
    So, thoughts now turn to spring and hopefully bright, vivid colors dotting the landscape. Bulbs are the way to go in the long run, especially if you choose those that come up year after year without much effort on your part. Even the ones that need to be replanted more often can still lift the spirits after winter’s doldrums.
    Bulbs are like small presents ready to be opened come March, April and May if treated correctly. Unlike plant manipulation, such as pleaching, grafting and espalier, planting bulbs is more basket weaving than rocket science.
    While bulbs will thrive better in full sun, they’ll do well in shade. That’s because the plant blooms and produces most of its food for the subsequent year’s bloom by the time trees and shrubs have fully leafed out.
    This doesn’t work for planting under evergreens unless the branches are pruned high, which isn’t the best practice to maintain a healthy evergreen tree. Stick with a vining groundcover such as English ivy, pachysandra or vinca for the evergreens.
    Bulbs will grow in most soils but the looser the soil and the more organic matter in the soil, the better the bulb will be.
    Because they are small, you can tuck them everywhere.
    Plant lots of daffodils between your hostas, providing yellow and white color as the hosta leaves unfurl. Then, as the hosta leaves get thicker, they’ll hide the yellowing bulb foliage. Daffodils interplanted with daylilies provide the best of gardening worlds with the strap-like daffodil leaves blending with daylily foliage.
    Bulbs can be placed between peonies, in asparagus beds or around rhubarb plants.
    Smaller bulbs such as Scilla (squills), anemone, grape hyacinths, winter aconites and snowdrops can make carpets in the perennial bed or around some of the flower spring shrubs.
    We’ve probably all seen homes and areas in the park alive with blue flowers come April that take our breath away.
    Granted, you may have to order several hundred but the bulb discount will make it worth it. And planting is more intensive unless you have gnomes in your yard. But it’s doable on a weekend.
    Bulb options
    Of all the bulbs, daffodils (technically in the genus Narcissus, hence the other common name) is the best bulb investment. Plant them at the right depth and in the right spot and they’ll come back year after year. Along country roads in the spring, you can find old homesteads alive with patches of yellow and white where no one has lived for 50 years.
    Page 2 of 3 - Daffodils, sadly, only come in white and yellow but their corona or cup can be yellow, white, orange, red, or pink. Cup size varies from large trumpets to extremely small.
    There are 13 classes of daffodils based on the cup size, flower pose and number of flowers per stem. There are also miniature versions of each type that are perfect for rock gardens or around miniature daylilies and hostas.
    Tulips are more diverse in color and sizes, but tend to last only a couple of years before they need to be replanted. While this is more costly and time consuming, it allows you to change colors.
    Occasionally, you’ll plant the tulip a little deep, which causes the plant to expend more energy for the bloom to push through the soil. Doing so, surprisingly, prolongs the life of the tulip bulb as it’s less likely to produce side shoots.
    Hyacinths are also classified as short-lived but can come back year after year because they don’t know they aren’t supposed to. Of all the spring bulbs, hyacinths pack the most punch in the fragrance department.
    For the best variety in size, color and blooming time, go with alliums. These onion relatives can be four to five feet tall with a ball of purple flowers 6 inches in diameter to small green flowers that look like Medusa. Then there are those that look like 18-inch fireworks but on a 15-inch stem.
    Some alliums come back year after year. The giant types usually make it a couple years before calling it quits.
    A slew of smaller bulbs can be planted between the larger ones for an oriental carpet effect.
    Making sure bulbs thrive
    • Plant them at the correct depth. Plant large bulbs 6 to 8 inches deep and plant smaller ones 2 to 4 inches deep. Look at the bulb and figure about two to three times the largest dimension.
    • Plant the bulb with the tip pointing up. Upside down bulbs won’t magically right themselves. When in doubt, such as with anemone’s weird bulb, plant it on its side.
    • Spacing is important, but most bulbs can be planted closer than the package says. Cut the spacing in half but plant more bulbs. You can harvest some of the flowers and not affect the visual look.
    • Plant them now so they’ll start rooting. You can plant them into November as long as the ground isn’t frozen.
    • Use a bulb auger attached to an electric drill to make it easy to plant large bulbs. Most augers are 8 inches long so you don’t have to guess how deep you’re drilling. For smaller bulbs, dig up a large area, drop to your knees and push the bulbs in with your hands.
    • Scatter some garden fertilizer over the area you’re planting before you dig the soil. If you use a bulb auger, the drill-like effect will mix the fertilizer with the soil. For small bulbs, work the fertilizer in with your hands or trowel. A typical 10-10-10 fertilizer is OK.
    • Water thoroughly and mulch. Squirrels don’t like the bulbs as much as the loose soil you’ve created to hide their nuts. Mulch helps.
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    David Robson is a specialist with University of Illinois Extension.
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