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Planting Spring Bulbs in the Fall

Planting bulbs is one of those relatively simple tasks which, when done, is very satisfying, and in less than half a year, is even more satisfying.  Your work will be rewarded when spring bulbs brave the elements and start poking their heads up out of the ground and then begin to flower.   We are lucky here.  We can plant spring bulbs very late into the fall.  It’s best to wait until the soil temperature drops below 60 deg. F, and it can wait until early December as long as the ground isn’t frozen.  If it’s been a warm fall and the ground temperature is still relatively warm, it’s safe to plant.  The best time to plant on Nantucket though is in October.  This gives the bulbs a chance to grow some roots and get ‘settled in.’

The most foolproof bulb to plant is the daffodil. I entered the daffodil show this year for the very first time, and I’m inspired to plant a lot of different varieties this fall.  There are hundreds of varieties of daffodils and narcissus, and most of them are equally hardy.  Treated with care, they will multiply and produce more flowers every year. The best part is they are deer-proof!  A few other good deer -proof bulbs are Siberian Squill, Grape Hyacinths and Purple Drumstick Alliums.  Planted together, they produce a riot of yellow and purple in the spring.  They’re all hardy in our zone 7.

You can plant a whole bulb garden, or you can weave the bulbs into an already existing garden.  A drift of color is very effective all on its own, but if the bulbs are planted among existing perennials, the ripening foliage on the bulbs is covered by the emerging perennials.  Nearly all spring bulbs prefer a location with full sun.  Choose a spot where the foliage will get at least 6 hours of sun from spring through summer, and unless you are incorporating the bulbs into an existing garden, plan to plant large groupings, rather than individual bulbs here and there.

Planting the bulbs at the right depth is essential for good growth and survival.  The rule of thumb is that the planting hole should be three to four times as deep as the bulb is in height. In other words, a bulb that is two inches high should be planted in a hole that is six to eight inches deep.  If you are planting a drift of one type of bulbs, the best way to prepare is to dig a bed that is of equal depth throughout.  Lay the bulbs on the bottom of the hole following spacing instructions for the particular bulb you are planting.  Generally, smaller bulbs are planted closer together.  Be sure to place them on the ground with the roots pointing down.  With a few types of flower bulbs, it can be difficult to tell which is up and which is down.  Don’t be shy about asking for help from a knowledgeable garden center employee if you are not sure which end is up!. Replace the soil and firm gently.  If you are incorporating bulbs into an already existing garden, you can use any number of contraptions to dig small holes for 1-3 bulbs.  If you decide to plant a lot, you may want to get an auger attachment for your cordless drill.  This makes quick work of a big bag of bulbs. To add interest and create a longer blooming display, you can plant several types in the same drift.  For example, if you were to plant daffodils together with grape hyacinths, you would first dig a hole 6 or 8 inches deep and 18 or more inches wide and plant the larger bulbs (the daffodils).  Cover them up and fill the hole to the proper depth for the smaller bulbs. Lay those smaller bulbs in and cover with the rest of the dirt.  If you have a rodent problem (moles, voles, squirrels) you can dip the bulbs in a repellent before you plant, or you can throw a few handfuls of gravel around the bulbs. 

Another way to avoid predators munching on your bulbs is to plant them in containers.  The same rules apply regarding depth and fertilizing when planting in containers.  Start with the largest bulbs, and fill the container gradually, placing the smaller bulbs in higher and higher layers.  It’s more important to be sure to use a well-drained potting medium for planting in a pot.  A potting mix made for normal containers may be too wet for the bulbs over the winter, so blending a cup or two of sand to the mix may give the extra drainage necessary to keep them happy until spring. Try narcissus, muscari, hyacinths and scilla for a neat container combination for April.  Tulips go great with bluebells and wood anemones for a little later bloom time. 

What’s your favorite spring bulb?


I always wrap my tulip and daffodil bulbs in steel wool--non-soapy, of course!  Keeps away the mice, voles and chipmunks that might eat them.  Another route would be to cut off the bottom of some kind of can--soup, beans, you name it--and put the tulip bulb in it so the roots grow downwards but the bulb is protected.