Denise Ellsworth

The time is ripe to think ahead to spring by selecting and planting spring-flowering bulbs.

Bulbs can be purchased locally, or ordered from catalogs in the next few weeks, to be planted in October and beyond. While some bulbs (like tulips) prefer more time in the ground before the ground freezes, most bulbs can be planted right up through November or even December, depending on how severe our fall weather becomes.

A bulb is one of nature’s small miracles. The gardener takes a brown, onion-like mass with no suggestion of color, and tucks it deep into the soil. The autumn rains and cool temperatures prompt the bulb to begin root growth before winter arrives with its cold and snow.

When the gardener has fully forgotten about the bulb — when fall is a distant memory and she’s weary from the gray days of winter — she is at last rewarded with a burst of color and the assurance that spring has finally come, about five months after planting that bulb. No gardener comes to regret having spent time in October planting bulbs.

Bulbs belong in many areas in the garden, from containers to woodland areas to formal display beds. Tulips, daffodils and alliums can add color and depth when mixed into the perennial border, and small bulbs like crocus and squills seem a perfect fit in the rock garden.

Add bulbs in garden beds at entryways so they can be enjoyed every day, even when mud or a chill in the air puts exploring the whole landscape out of reach. If the garden budget is tight, just a few crocus and hyacinth bulbs outside the front door provide the tonic to erase all thoughts of gray February days. The smell alone of a cut hyacinth flower is enough to chase winter out of the house.

Most spring-flowering bulbs require full sun for best flowering and repeat bloom. Because these plants have a relatively short season above ground — generally less than two months — they need as much sun as possible to build reserves for next year. “Full sun” during these two months means, however, that spring bulbs can fare well when planted under deciduous trees, such as large oaks or maples. In this way, bulbs bring a welcome splash of color to the shade garden, where color can be more difficult to incorporate.

As is true in most all types of gardening, success starts with the soil. A daffodil bulb planted in hard, compacted soil that’s void of nutrients is a recipe for failure. Loose, rich garden soil with plenty of organic matter provides the perfect substrate for bulbs to grow and return, year after year. Phosphorous, a nutrient vital for good root growth, barely moves through the soil, and should be incorporated by mixing in bone meal or a complete fertilizer to the bottom of the planting hole before setting in the bulbs.

The depth of bulb planting is another important consideration for the gardener. Plant them too deep, and the bulbs will run out of energy before breaking through the soil surface. Shallow planting can encourage root loss as soil heaves due to freezing and thawing over the winter. As a general rule, plant bulbs at a depth of three times their width, or consult a depth planting chart before digging. Plant bulbs with their tips up, and their rounded side resting on the soil surface.

Besides digging the hole and adding fertilizer before planting, bulbs require little else for a healthy start. Fall rains usually provide all the water the bulbs need to begin root growth. To moderate soil temperature and moisture, several inches of mulch can be added to the garden bed once outdoor temperatures begin to drop, just be sure the mulch is a total of no more than about three inches.

Bulbs benefit from fertilization in spring, as leaf tips begin to emerge. Later, remove spent flowers as they fade, so that the plant puts its energy into the bulb instead of seed production.

As hard as it is for some gardeners to bear, bulb foliage should be left in the garden until it yellows. Braiding, cutting or bending bulb leaves only reduces the energy to be stored in the bulb for next year’s bloom. Sooner or later, these practices result in weakened bulbs and reduced flowering, or even die out of the bulbs themselves. Better to plant pansies or early perennials close by to hide the fading leaves.

Try as we might in Ohio, the one bulb that is unlikely to return from year to year with any kind of dependable splendor is the tulip. Count yourself lucky if you have massive, ongoing tulip displays without replanting yearly — most display gardens treat tulips as annuals, pulling out the bulbs after the flowers fade and replanting fresh bulbs in the fall.

Tulips are richly rewarding in the garden, however, especially if the spring is cool enough to extend their bloom. Gardeners seem willing to accept the trade-off of a short lived bulb that gives its all for a few splendid weeks.

Even though spring seems a world away, pay yourself forward by tucking a few favorite bulbs into the garden this fall. Your soon-to-be winter weary mind will thank you.

Denise Ellsworth directs the honeybee and native pollinator education program for the Ohio State University. If you have questions about caring for your garden, contact her at 330-263-3700 or click on the Ask Denise link on her blog at www.osugarden.com.