It's time to plant bulbs

In my last column, I listed planting spring-flowering bulbs as one of the things to do in the garden this fall. Several readers asked me to expand on that topic, so that's just what I'll do.

Much of the success in gardening lies in planning and preparation, so let's first consider when and where to plant bulbs.

Since bulbs should be planted after the soil has cooled, October, November and early December are ideal. While bulbs usually like sunny locations, this is one instance where you can plant under high-limbed deciduous trees if you wish, as the bulbs will be up and perhaps blooming before the tree leaves are large. Two other considerations in the planning stage: Bulbs look best planted in drifts, or groups. If they are planted in rows, your display will not be nearly as effective. Plant at least a dozen bulbs per group — 20 or more of small bulbs like crocuses.

Second, the foliage needs to be left in place after blooming, and it isn't particularly attractive. Resist the temptation to cut off the foliage while it's still green, as the leaves are busy helping the bulbs store food for the next year's blooms. Plan to have the foliage hidden by other emerging perennials, ornamental grasses, or by annuals added in the spring.

All bulbs like well-drained soil so they won't rot over the winter. Incorporate generous amounts of compost or well-rotted manure into your planting bed. It isn't necessary to fertilize when you plant, as the bloom is already waiting for you inside the bulb, but if your soil needs a boost at planting time, use a fertilizer rich in phosphorus, such as 5-10-5 to help encourage strong root development. Bone meal works well for this, too.

However, remember to sprinkle some "bulb booster" fertilizer in the spring as the plants begin to emerge. That will help the bulb form good blooms the following year.

Consider size

Now, let's get to planting. In selecting bulbs, size does matter. Plant the largest firm bulbs you can find for the best bloom result. Do not plant bulbs that are shriveled, moldy, have soft spots, or are lightweight for their size.

Bulbs should be planted pointed end up and twice as deep as their height. Space larger bulbs 4 to 6 inches apart; 2 to 3 inches apart for the little guys. If you are planting several in a group, scoop the soil out with a shovel, stand the bulbs up, and gently backfill with the soil you've removed. With some kinds of bulbs like windflowers or anemones, it can be difficult to tell which is the top. Plant them on their sides, and they will be OK.

One last word of caution: Never plant bulbs in really dry soil. If you find dry soil a few inches down, water the area you plan to plant thoroughly and deeply the day before putting in your bulbs. Water well after planting, too, and then you should not need to water again, as winter rains will do that job for you.

Add 2 or 3 inches of compost to the surface, such as shredded leaves or fine bark. This helps prevent the soil from drying out next spring, and keeps temperatures stable through the winter. Improves the soil, too.

Now, all you have to do is sit back and enjoy that wonderful display of color next spring and for many springs to come.

Carol Oneal is a past president of the OSU Jackson County Master Gardeners Association. E-mail her at

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