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Gardeners have a reputation for being the ultimate optimists. As one season starts to fade, we plant for what is to come. One of my favorite inspirational gardening books from which I often quote is Karel Capek’s “The Gardener’s Year.” Capek writes that the fall season is actually spring underground with all the activity of bulbs coming to life. If you have had the misfortune of accidentally unearthing a spring bulb while digging in the fall, you often will see fresh roots growing or little bulbs forming attached to the mother bulb.
The hot and smoky days of the past weeks have given us little impetus to leave our air-conditioning and look for bulbs to plant this fall. The problem is that it is time for bulbs to appear in garden centers and nurseries. Now is the best time to purchase them while they still feel solid and look fresh. Although I recommend early purchasing, it isn’t time to plant.
Bulbs take root best when the soil temperature has registered between 40 and 50 degrees for several weeks. The planting site should be in full sun (six to eight hours). More than a half day of shade will encourage a leggy, weak growth unless the bulb is noted as shade-loving and meant to be planted in the shade. When designing a bulb garden, choose a spot where you will enjoy the blooms the most. You’ve waited all winter for a burst of color so you should make the most of the planting site.
A word of caution: We automatically think of the south side of the house as being a warm, protected site, but it can turn out to be your enemy. The accumulated heat from the foundation and the house siding will result in earlier blooming, which will also put the emerging bulbs at risk for frost damage. Every year we experience a week of “false spring,” which is always followed by a return to normal frosty weather.
What will work in Central Oregon? It all depends who lives or visits your backyard. If deer are a problem, forget tulips. That’s like opening up a 5-pound box of chocolates for their enjoyment. Better choices for a deer-plagued landscape would be daffodils, crocus, scilla (squill), galanthus (snowdrops), muscari (grape hyacinths), fritillaria and allium.
The list may seem limited, but the good news is that most of the suggestions are available in bloom periods of early spring, late-spring and even into summer. Our local nurseries and garden centers provide us with ample selections of the most popular bulbs, but due to the comparatively short shelf life in a retail situation, it would be impossible to stock bins and bins of the more unusual bulbs.
Galanthus, commonly known as snowdrops, are extremely hardy and usually the first of the bulbs to bloom. All species produce delicate, bell-shaped, white, pendulous flowers with emerald-green markings. Because they appear to be so delicate, they show best in clusters of 10 or more. Snowdrops can be grown in sun or semishade and are tagged as deer-resistant.
Crocus and scilla are also early spring bloomers. Crocus is probably more recognizable than scilla. The tiny blue flowers are borne on 6-inch stems and can be planted in shade or semi-shade. They also show best planted in clusters of 10 or more. In addition to being planted in the bulb garden, crocus is an easy bulb for forcing indoor bloom in winter, so pick up some extras. Both are tagged as deer-resistant.
Muscari, also known as grape hyacinth, was one of the favorites of Thomas Jefferson. The flowers resemble upside-down clusters of grapes. The species comes in pale blue, pale yellow, white and cobalt blue flower spikes, with the bright cobalt blue being the most popular. Muscari is an easy bulb for indoor forcing and tagged as deer-resistant.
One can never say enough about daffodils; they fit the bill as the workhorse of the bulb garden from early spring through late spring. There are so many choices — color, cup size, fragrance, tall or short — that it is hard to make decisions. There are tagged as deer-resistant as well.
Bulbs are about as foolproof as you can get. Give them a good amount of organic material — usually compost mixed in with the native soil — and add a bulb fertilizer mixed in at the bottom of the planting hole. As soon as shoots break through in the spring, the bulbs are fertilized again. Spring flowering bulbs should not be fertilized after they have started flowering as this tends to encourage bulb rot.
How deep, which way?
Bulbs that are prepackaged come with planting depth instructions. The general rule of thumb is to plant three times as deep as the bulb is tall. Others say the rule is three times the diameter rather than the bulb height. Either way, the bulb will emerge sooner or later. Bulbs are planted with the broadest end, which is usually the root end, in the bottom of the hole. The same holds true if the bulb has been planted upside down: Eventually it will right itself and happily break through the soil. The last step is to water the area well to settle and provide needed moisture for the bulb to start rooting.
One of the most important aspects of being a bulb gardener is to allow the foliage to die back naturally. Spent blossoms should be cut out before they start forming seed pods, but the foliage is left to die back naturally as that is what provides the nutrients for next year’s growth. Consider planting perennials to help camouflage the dying foliage.
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