Plant spring-flowering bulbs before hard freeze

By Tom Seymour | Oct 13, 2016
Photo by: Tom Seymour Crocus are a welcome sight to winter-weary eyes when spring finally comes.

At first glance this seems like an odd time to think about spring-flowering bulbs. But bulbs planted now will bloom next spring, so the idea isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Before getting into planting specifics, allow me to mention a wee bit of bulb trivia. Spring-flowering bulbs belong to a large family of plants called “geophytes.’ Members of this group store energy in their underground bulbs (or corms, tubers or rhizomes), and they release this energy after first experiencing the freezing temperatures of winter, followed by the warming temperatures of spring.

Ideally, we should wait to plant our bulbs until soil temperature drops to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. However, since that usually coincides with our first window-scraping frost, it’s OK to plant without taking the soil temperature if you just wait for the first frost.

However, a hard freeze that freezes the top inch or so of ground signals an end to planting time. But as long as the soil remains unfrozen, it’s OK to plant anytime after the first frost. I have procrastinated and held bulbs over until November and even then, the hardy bulbs produced blooms the following spring.

Planting tips

Spring bulbs like good, rich soil. But I have had good luck by planting in existing woodland loam. It doesn’t hurt, though, to add compost to the planting hole. However, despite its reputation for being a spring-flowering bulb enhancer, bone meal attracts skunks. Even when it is mixed with compost and covered over with soil, skunks will dig down until they hit paydirt. Bulbs can do just fine without the addition of bone meal, so to save aggravation later, don’t use it.

The first question asked by people planting spring-flowering bulbs for the first time is, “How deep should I plant?” A handy rule for measuring bulb depth is to go three times the height of the bulb. And for spacing, just space them three times their width apart. Larger bulbs might need to be planted just a little bit deeper and spaced somewhat wider too.

Next, examine your bulbs and determine which end is the rooting end and which the flowering end. Generally, the pointed end is the flowering end and that should point up when planted. Or viewed the other way, plant bulbs blunt end down. If there is a question as to which end is which, plant the bulb on its side, and it will grow just fine.

After planting my spring-blooming bulbs, I like to sprinkle loose forest loam and even a few dead leaves over the planting site. This, I’m convinced, adds an extra layer of protection from opportunistic predators such as skunks, and even voles and other rodents. If they can’t smell it and can’t see it, they will probably not dig it up. This is something I have deduced myself and thus far, it has worked well.

Finally, it’s OK to lightly sprinkle special bulb food on top of freshly-planted bulbs. I prefer Scott’s Bulb Continuous Release Plant Food. This and similar products also help feed bulbs in summer, so don’t hesitate to apply after the flowering bulbs and their foliage have disappeared.

Bulb choice

For many people, spring-flowering bulbs bring to mind tulips, hyacinth and daffodils. Of the three, only daffodils can make it through our Maine winters. The other two should be treated as annuals. Of course, planting tulips and hyacinths each year can run into money. I prefer to stick with daffodils and jonquils for large plants and then fill in the balance with smaller plants.

Small bulbs come in a wide variety of species, styles and colors. Even that old favorite, crocus, is available in a great number of types. For those just beginning to establish a spring-flowering bulb bed, crocus represent an established favorite. Every garden should have at least a few groups of crocus. Crocus will live on and multiply, thus giving us early-season color for many years to come. And even if a late snow catches them as they erupt from the ground, it won’t hurt them as long as the flowers haven’t opened.

One spring when the forecaster predicted a late snow, I had the presence of mind to place a blue tarp over my bed of blooming crocus. When the snow melted, the tarp was removed and my flowers were none the worse for wear.

As a matter of tradition, I like to plant a new type of spring-flowering bulb each year. This year’s choice is another small bulb, Chionodoxa,aka. glory of the snow. This winter-hardy, deer-resistant bulb can live in climates all the way down to zone 2. Midcoast Maine is, roughly, zone 5.

Also, Chionodoxa can serve as a cut flower. With 10 or more flowers per stem, it makes a fine flower for filling that vase for the kitchen table. Chionodoxa can bloom as early as late February. More often, though, it will bloom sometime in March.

Last year I added Scilla siberica, Siberian squill. As both the common and botanical names suggest, this cold-hardy bulb even grows in Siberia. An heirloom plant, gardeners have been cultivating squill since 1796. And like glory of the snow, Siberian squill is scorned by deer and other bulb destroyers.

Other good choices for Maine gardeners include Narcissus, or miniature daffodils; Galanthus, or snowdrops; and Leucojum, or snowflakes.

Narcissus are rodent-resistant, blooming for several weeks each season. The bulbs divide and form clumps, thus giving a long-lasting presence. Individual bulbs only last a few years, so the clump-forming quality makes it worth bothering with.

Snowdrops rank among the earliest spring-flowering bulbs to bloom, often surprising us by flowering while snow still covers the ground. The white flowers depend, or hang down, on a fairly long stem.

Finally, snowflakes offer bell-shaped white flowers with green-tipped petals. Snowflakes grow much larger than snowdrops, often reaching eight inches. Snowflakes produce one flower per stem and make for a good cutting flower. Snowflakes bloom later than the other bulbs mentioned here, usually coming in sometime in late April or even May.

Winter breakers

Spring-flowering bulbs serve as winter breakers, signaling the return of spring with their cheery, brave blooms. Even if more cold weather and even snow follows, as long as some spring-flowering bulbs have bloomed, spring has become a reality.

Tom’s tips

Local greenhouses, and even some hardware chains that cater to gardeners, usually have some spring-flowering bulbs for sale in the fall. Sometimes choice is limited, but when planting spring bulbs comes as an afterthought, it sure is handy to run down to the nearest outlet and buy some bulbs for immediate planting.

Seed catalogs usually have a large selection of spring bulbs, and these companies routinely run huge sales. For those with foresight, ordering from a catalog means more bulbs for less money. Even the “all-in-one” garden selections can present a good buy. These usually include a wide variety of bulbs. So whichever suits you, do try to pick up some spring-flowering bulbs this fall. You’ll thank yourself next spring when your bulbs put on their first show.

Planing spring-flowering bulbs requires few tools. (Photo by: Tom Seymour)
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