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Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs in the Fall

By Peter Fossel

Photo by Getty Images

Our last goodbye to the growing season behind us lies in the flower bulbs we can plant before frost, whose blooms will welcome us to the garden again in spring.

And what a medley it is: tulips, daffodils, narcissus, hyacinths, crocus, and others we can plant when summer is done, knowing the fruits of our labor will spring forth in color and fragrance to cheer us for weeks on end, just when we need it most.

Spring bulbs are a gardener's tonic and treasure, so here are some tips for bringing the treasure home.

First, most bulbs last for years, the exception being tulips, which once bloomed year after year predictably as April rain. But with hybridization, where bloom size and stem height became key, the perennial trait was lost. Tulips today - the so-called Darwin hybrids - bloom once and then decline. They are considered annuals now.

A solution is to plant what are called "species" (or wild) tulips, which aren't as showy or tall, but are as cheery as springtime. Or look for other perennial tulip varieties, such as Fosterianas, which last practically forever and have beautiful long-stemmed blooms.

Select spring-flowering bulbs in time to get them planted several weeks before first frost. They need to get in the ground and have time to establish roots before ground freeze stops the rooting.

A bulb planter, a tapered metal tube with a handle, which you twist into the ground to make a hole, makes digging bulb holes a whole lot easier. But if your soil is compact clay, or you have many bulbs to plant, consider buying a bulb auger. Put this in an electric drill, pull the trigger, and you have a hole in seconds.

Place a bit of bone meal or a commercial bulb booster in the hole to promote rooting. Bulbs also love dried manure and compost.

The general rule is to plant a bulb at a depth three to four times its height. This not only helps them naturalize, but it prevents squirrels and other rodents from chewing them.

Plant bulbs with the fat end down. Place large bulbs about 6 inches apart, and small ones about 2 inches apart.

Spring bulbs love full sun, but because they all flower before trees leaf out you can plant under deciduous trees.

In spring, remove a tulip's seed head to conserve energy in the bulb. Others need no dead-heading unless they're unsightly. Let the foliage remain for 6 to 8 weeks to feed the bulb and ensure a good bloom next spring.

To hide this browning foliage, and to provide the dry shade in summer that bulbs love (especially tulips, which need a dry dormancy), plant them among daylillies, hostas, peonies, irises, or other perennials. This will leave you with a long season of spring blooms, a time for the bulbs to regenerate, and — best of all — nothing to weed.