There’s still time to plant bulbs!

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Wed., Oct. 17, 2012
- Contributed Photo

The colored leaves gently fall to the ground, signaling the end of another growing season - and your last chance to get spring flowering bulbs into the ground. Consider a few facts on bulb care before rushing out to purchase your heralds of spring.

Bulbs are actually underground storage organs which contain enough food to produce flowers and foliage for next spring. This foliage manufactures more food (carbohydrates) which is then translocated back into the bulb to sustain the following year’s growth and bloom. This is not to say that bulbs do not require a source of external nutrients – in other words, fertilization. On many sites, they would perform better if fertilized. The nutrients in fertilizer are used in the manufacture of sugars and carbohydrates, among other plant metabolite, just like vitamins and minerals are necessary for human growth and development.

An easy way to fertilize bulbs is to incorporate a complete natural/organic or synthetic fertilizer into the soil when planting, if recommended by a soil test. Without a soil test, a good bet would be to use a product such as Bulb Booster, Bulb-Tone, or comparable fertilizer as directed on the package. In general, fertilizers for bulbs usually contain moderate amounts of phosphorus to encourage root growth and blossoms.

Once in place, bulbs can be fertilized each spring, along with perennials and shrubs. Typically one annual application of fertilizer is sufficient for these types of plants.

Bonemeal (1-13-0) had long been recommended for new or established plantings of bulbs. Today it is processed to such a degree that most of its nitrogen is removed. The guaranteed analysis of bonemeal used to be closer to 4-12-0. It is still an excellent natural/organic source of phosphorus, but the nutrients, nitrogen and potassium are also needed for successful bulb growth and establishment.

Like most of our garden plants, spring flowering bulbs require a well-drained soil enriched with moderate amounts of organic matter. Most bulbs prefer a pH of around 6.5. While many bulbs perform best in full sun, a few species are suitable for shady sites.

When purchasing bulbs, consider their placement in the landscape. Often it is best to stick to a few colors, usually 3 to 5 at the most. Too many colors, unless placed in a well thought-out cottage garden design, may look distracting. Try to repeat these colors using different bulb species to echo the same colors throughout the yard. I just got an order of reddish-coppery colored ‘Altruist’ daffodils to add to my orange/yellow, white and blue color palette of bulbs.

Plant your bulbs in drifts or clumps rather than in straight lines for a more pleasing presentation. Large bulbs - like tulips, daffodils and hyacinths - should be planted in groups of at least 5 to 12, while smaller bulbs - such as crocuses, scilla, and netted iris - often require at least a couple of dozen in one spot for a good show. Consider also their time of bloom. By planting bulbs that bloom in early, mid, and late spring, you can have a splash of color from when the snow melts up until June.

Do think about what else you have planted that will bloom at the same time as your bulbs. Spring flowering bulbs look wonderful planted under spring flowering shrubs or trees, or intermingled with early-blooming perennials like basket of gold alyssum, bluebells, or candytuft. Try white hyacinths under rosy azaleas, pastel wood hyacinths among a bed of vinca, or drifts of pink scilla between mounds of white candytuft.

The earlier the bulbs are planted in the ground, the longer the time they have to establish a good root system before the ground freezes. Generally, bulbs are planted to a depth of three times the width of the bulb. So a 1-inch diameter bulb would be planted 3 inches deep.

Late plantings will benefit from an inch or two of mulch laid on the ground after planting. Ideally this would be followed by a covering of evergreen boughs (the Christmas tree or spent holiday arrangements) when the ground freezes.

If you have questions about selecting or planting spring flowering bulbs or for any home or garden question, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 877-486-6271, visit, or contact your local Cooperative Extension office.

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