The time to plant spring-flowering bulbs begins now and lasts until the ground freezes.

This is one of those projects that, once completed, keeps on giving and giving. That’s because many spring bulbs reproduce by way of something like scales on the side of the bulb. These scales each become, in their turn, new bulbs. That’s often why plantings from many years ago are still in evidence. Other spring-flowering plants have corms, rather than bulbs. With corms, the old corm dies back each year after flowering, to be replaced by a new corm. This explains why some spring-flowering varieties seemingly live forever.

Of everything we plant, spring-flowering bulbs rank among the easiest to deal with. Consider this. Spring-flowering bulbs come with everything needed to grow already packed inside. At the risk of being overly simplistic, planting spring bulbs is almost a case of digging a hole three times deeper than the bulb is long, dropping in the bulb, flat side down, covering with soil and patting the top so as to compact it. There’s a bit more to it, of course, but you get the idea.

Spring-flowering bulbs have some enemies, the first of which is skunks. It’s not so much that skunks care for the bulbs, but rather, they are attracted to the bonemeal people add to the hole with the bulb to promote growth. Skunks love bonemeal and will dig up freshly planted bulbs to get at it. Some gardeners put metal hardware cloth on top of the fresh plantings, but in my mind that’s a lot of work for scant results. Besides, I’ve known skunks to rip up the wire mesh, push it aside and then dig up the bulbs anyway.

Which is why I forgo bonemeal. It helps, certainly, but the bulbs will grow without it. A bigger problem, but one more easily solved, is damping off. Wet ground is definitely a no-no for spring-blooming bulbs. They may live for a season or two, but will eventually perish. So above all, refrain from planting bulbs in wet areas. Bulbs require well-drained soil. Soil should be friable, too, meaning that it won’t compact when balled up and crushed in the hand.

Bulbs will grow in soil that isn’t perfect, as in clay soils. Just amend the clay with sand, peat moss or other such material, and bulbs should settle in nicely. Most of my bulbs are set in woodland loam, that loose, thin layer of topsoil in the forest. My bulb area sits in a place where brush and shrubs were thinned out and only mature pines remain. The place is on a hillside, which allows for complete drainage. And the bulbs love it. Over the years, these same old bulbs have filled in their allotted space, and so each spring sees a thicker mat of color.

In early spring, when many spring-flowering bulbs bloom, the leaf canopy hasn’t yet developed, allowing for planting in semi-shaded areas. Ideally, most spring bulbs like full sun, but lacking that, don’t hesitate to plant spring bulbs in semi-shaded places. They’ll do just fine in most cases.

Some early-spring bulbs bloom so early that they occasionally see snow damage. The flowers, being paper-thin, turn into something resembling wet crepe paper after being covered with snow. To avoid that, I carefully monitor the weather and if snow seems likely, I’ll place a lightweight tarp over the flowers.

So as not to crush the dainty blooms, a few sticks of firewood go around and even inside the bed, so as to keep the weight of the snow from flattening the flowers. As soon as it stops snowing, it’s OK to remove the tarp. It does make for an unusual sight, a bed full of brightly colored flowers surrounded by snow. But the tarp treatment works. It really aggravates me to see what are among my favorite flowers destroyed at just the time we need their cheery color. So watch for snow and take appropriate measures.

Bloom times vary for different bulbs. Some, such as crocus, spring beauty, winter aconite, common snowdrop, grape hyacinth and bloodroot, rank among the earliest to bloom in spring. After that, hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and jonquils take over as the earlier blooms fade into obscurity. However, tulips don’t last long here in Maine, and because of that I treat them as annuals, better suited for container gardening than for in-ground situations. Hyacinths, too, with the exception of the sweet-smelling grape hyacinths, only last a few years.

With hyacinths, the first-year blooms look much like the full blooms on potted plants sold in stores in spring. But the following year, the flowerstalk is only sparsely populated with flowers, and it goes downhill after that. Knowing this, gardeners should view hyacinths as annuals, the same as tulips.

Daffodils and jonquils, though, thrive in our Maine climate. What’s more, these fragrant spring-flowering bulbs multiply rapidly. And for more daffodils and jonquils, just wait until three or four years have passed and then dig up some clumps of bulbs and divide them. I do this in late spring, after the foliage has died back. It’s a quick and easy way to multiply your bulbs with very little effort.

Of course, I’ve only barely touched upon all the wonderful spring-blooming bulbs available. And like everyone else, it pleases me to try new and different varieties from time to time. But when purchasing a new variety of spring-blooming bulbs, read the instructions carefully and shoot for something that is cold-hardy down to Hardiness Zone 4. That way you’ll be assured that no matter how cold it gets in winter, your precious bulbs will easily handle it.

Planting techniques

Spring-flowering bulbs and indeed, any bulbs, come with certain rules to observe when planting. First, know that bargain-basement deals on bulbs usually pertain to smaller bulbs. If ordering mail-order bulbs, don’t choose anything less than 15 to 17 centimeters. And if selecting bulbs in a garden center or greenhouse, choose the largest bulbs, because in this case, bigger bulbs give you more bang for your money.

Smaller bulbs will produce smaller blooms, so go for the largest bulbs. Some retailers advertise their bulbs as being full-size, so there you can be assured that you will probably get to choose from the largest, hardiest bulbs.

When planting, remember that ideally, most bulbs should be set about 8 inches deep. In my woodland garden, 8 inches is often unobtainable, because of lots of rocky shale only 5 or 6 inches beneath the surface. Despite that, my bulbs do just fine. Either way, dig the soil down to 12 inches if possible, and then amend it with compost or even soil mixed with well-rotted cow manure.

Here’s a handy rule of thumb for spring-flowering bulbs. Plant bulbs three times deeper than their height. To measure a bulb, just remember that the flattish part is the bottom and the pointed part is the top. And when setting bulbs, always plant the flat, or bottom side, down. For bulbs that appear symmetrical, plant on the side and it will turn on its own as it grows. Also, still following the rule of three, set bulbs apart from each other about three times their average width.

As for fertilizer, mix dry fertilizer in with the planting soil and compost when planting. After that, I like to top-dress my spring-flowering bulbs each summer with a slow-acting, pelletized fertilizer which, after being spread on top of the bed, will leach into the soil with each succeeding rain.

And even though most spring-blooming bulbs do best in dry, well-drained soil, it is important to water thoroughly after planting in order to stimulate underground growth. That way your bulb will have water enough to begin putting on top growth at the appropriate time in spring. I like to plant ahead of a rainstorm, since a good rain can penetrate further down than water from a hose.

Here’s one final tip. When planting large bulbs, look for “bulblets,” those scale-like parts on the outside of the bulb. Ideally, these bulblets should show evidence of new growth in the form of a small green shoot. Separate these bulblets from the main bulb and plant separately. It will take several years for these to reach maturity, but in the end it is a way to add more bulbs to your garden. With spring-flowering bulbs, nothing beats a fully packed bed or swath of flowers. Such a setup can be eye-dazzling.

Garlic time

It’s time to plant garlic. In fact, this week is prime time for us Mainers to set out our garlic. If, like me, you save your garlic bulbs from year to year, you will have a difficult decision to make. That is, choose the largest bulbs in order to get the largest cloves. It’s the individual cloves we plant and these will produce the biggest and best bulbs next year.

It’s tempting to use smaller cloves, but don’t do it. Sometimes we gardeners must go on faith, and this is one of those times.

Most of us plant what we call “hard-neck garlic.” These give large, long-lasting bulbs and have a strong garlic flavor. The kind of garlic we buy in grocery stores is called, “soft-neck” garlic and in my estimation it isn’t worth bothering with as far as planting in a home garden. But hard-neck or soft-neck, it’s purely a matter of choice. Taste is subjective, so plant the type that you enjoy best.

Tom’s tips

The time has come to disconnect garden hoses and then drain and store them. But what about those times when you still need to use the outside faucet?

Just take a 2-foot section of old garden hose and attach that. As long as it doesn’t sit on the ground, it won’t freeze, and being flexible, can easily fill any container.