Tips to get your customers planting fall bulbs

October 16, 2008
Written by By Dean Fosdick, The Associated Press
You're in for a treat if you're new to bulb gardening. Bloom colours are dazzling and their year-to-year staying power provides great value.

You can be forgiven if you're unaware of a few bulb basics - starting with which end should go up when dropping them into the ground. For the record, it's the pointed end. The side showing the
stringy evidence of roots should face bottom. But not to worry. Bulbs are pretty forgiving.

"If you aren't sure, plant it sideways. It should right itself," said Barbara Pierson, nursery manager at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.

Here are a few more bulb culture essentials:

-Plant bulbs deep and in well-drained soils having a neutral pH. "Big bulbs, including daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, get planted 8 inches (20 cm) deep," said Sally Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. "Small bulbs, such as grape hyacinths, crocus and others are planted 5 inches (12 cm) deep."

-Water newly planted bulbs frequently to help get their roots established.

-Perennials need to be fed. Fertilize bulbs once in the fall and again in the spring with an organic mixture of 9-9-6, the percentage, by weight, of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Spread that slow-release organic blend over the ground's surface rather than into the holes, which may cause root burn.

-Deadhead the plants after they've finished blooming to prevent wasted seedpod growth and to allow leaves and stems to dry before tidying up.

See to that, and you'll discover that bulbs are about as easy as it gets in gardening.

"Flower bulbs are like the perfect suitcase,'' said Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, president of Van Engelen Inc. in Bantam, Conn. "Lay them in the ground and over winter, they'll develop a good root system. In spring, the miracle occurs when they come up and bloom.

"For the first year, at least, a bulb has everything inside it that it needs to grow and it blooms beautifully for you."

Most flowering bulbs are described as perennials, but some are more perennial than others _ especially when given a proper start and a little attention during each growing season. To ensure many happy returns, choose bulbs labeled "Good for Perennializing" or "Good for Naturalizing."

"Perennial is a relative term," said Scott Kunst, owner and head gardener at Old House Gardens in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Peonies will live a century or more, whereas other common perennials won't last a decade.

"All tulips are perennial, but none will last for long if they get too much moisture during their summer dormancy,'' he said. "The key is to give them well-drained (sandy) soil and try to avoid
watering them in the summer. Once fall gets underway, they'll start forming new roots so they'll need water then, but through the summer they'd rather be bone dry, as in their native lands."

Spring flowering bulbs like their time in the sun, but many will do well in partial shade or when planted randomly in "drifts'' beneath trees in orchards or woodlots.

"Early blooming bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops can thrive under deciduous trees if they receive three to four hours of sun after the trees leaf out,'' said Pierson. "Late blooming tulips and
daffodils will not thrive under trees. Most bulbs appreciate six hours of sun per day, but can tolerate four hours.''

Bulbs do not survive extended periods out of the ground, do not perform well when kept outside in containers and won't long endure if their blooms are cut.

"Small bulbs such as snowdrops and fleshy bulbs like lilies are most vulnerable in storage, so they are best planted as soon as possible,'' Kunst said. "Daffodils, tulips and other bulbs with dried skins or tunics can be stored in open paper bags (for circulation) in a relatively cool, dry place for a few weeks.''

Bulbs can weather temperature changes better when they're in the ground than when they're in pots, van den Berg-Ohms said. "The ground cools slowly and warms slowly. Temperatures tell bulbs what to do - root, grow shoots, flower or rest.

"But temperatures spike more readily for plants grown in containers. That confuses the bulbs and they don't know what to do.''

It's great to be able to bring a bouquet of tulips or daffodils into the house in early spring but that can shorten the life of the plants in your outdoor beds. The flowers need to die back naturally
so they can be nourished for many years of growth.

"If you cut back a tulip, I can almost guarantee they won't grow back another year. That's why I recommend a separate cutting garden,'' van den Berg-Ohms said.

Spring blooming bulbs are stunners in mass plantings - carpets of colour after the dull, drab months of winter. But it would be wise to stretch such a large project over several seasons to make things easier on your bank account and your back.

Buying bulbs in quantity, however, will mean a sizable price break along with the opportunity to share the savings with friends.

"The process of planting bulbs in the fall is a cozy nesting experience,'' van den Berg-Ohms said. "It's sweater weather, a good time to get children involved - letting them know what goes on with
the earth.

"Buttoning up your garden before winter sets in also is a good investment in the future of your home. No matter what winter gives us, your bulbs are ready to thrive in spring and give you a sense of renewed beauty and hope.''

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