Most of the flowers that define the “spring garden” come from bulbs—which are essentially big, fat seeds. If I could choose a favourite fall task, it would have to be getting these beauties, including my tulips, daffodils, allium and snowdrops, in the ground. While they lay dormant in the winter, bulbs use the cool weather to develop their root systems in order to burst into life the following spring. If you don’t mind some delayed gratification in exchange for an enviable spring garden, this guide is for you.
Choosing Quality Bulbs
At this time of the year, bulbs are everywhere from the grocery store to the dollar store. As you might guess, they’re not all created equal, and if you’re aiming for the brightest spring blooms, you’ll want to be choosy with what you buy.
My most important suggestion is not to buy bulbs sold in packaging where you can’t see or touch them. Their texture, size, and appearance matters a lot!
Size correlates with the size and amount of blooms the plant will produce. Select the largest bulbs you can that are in good condition.
Texture tells you a lot about how healthy the bulb is. If the bulb is mushy or spongey, it’s a dud. You want firm, plump bulbs.
Appearance is a pretty easy one to judge. Any mould, black spots, or other indicators of rot are—obviously—to be avoided. Pick bulbs that look and feel healthy.
When to Plant
Since we’re in zone 5 in Guelph, we can get away with planting bulbs from late September into late November. Some years, we may even be able to get away with later planting. Rather than going off the time of year alone, I find it’s a better indicator to pay attention to evening temperatures and the condition of the soil when choosing when to plant bulbs.
Ideally, overnight temperatures should fall to lows of 5-10 °C, and the soil should be warm enough to be workable. Once the temperatures hit that threshold, you’re in the clear for planting.
With that said, life happens. It’s easy to get tied up with fall lawn care and other responsibilities and miss the ideal window for planting. My advice if you already bought your bulbs is to plant them anyway. As long as you can work the soil, they’re better off in the soil than in the packaging. Most species sold in our zone are pretty tough, so if you plant substantial drifts, you’re pretty likely to get a decent turnout in the spring.
If the ground is frozen completely solid, you’re still not without hope! Plant them in large containers and keep them in a sheltered, but unheated, area like a shed or garage. Give them a monthly drink of water and bring them back outside in the spring. At that point, you can choose to transplant them into the garden or let them bloom in your containers.
Different bulbs have different planting needs, so let’s go through a few of the most popular ones we sell at our garden centre in Guelph. For all the below species, choose well-drained soil and aim for a soil acidity of 6 or 7 for the best colour. The typical rules of thumb to remember are to plant at a depth of about 2-3x the height of the bulb and to water thoroughly after planting.
Tulips: Plant tulips in drifts spaced 15-20 cm apart. All tulips get planted in the fall, but there are ones that bloom in early spring (early may), mid-spring (middle to end of may), and late spring (end may to early June). Bulbs can be planted touching—there is no such thing as too close, you get the best show when you snuggle them together.
Crocus: There are fall crocuses and spring crocuses, which can be a bit confusing when you’re looking at planting times. In fall, you’re looking to plant spring-blooming crocuses, which may just be labelled “crocus”. Plant crocus bulbs in drifts spaced 5-15 cm apart. They look breathtaking in large groups.
Snowdrops: Also known as Galanthus, these nodding, white flowers are early bloomers here in Guelph, blooming alongside crocuses as early as March. Plant them in groups spaced 5-7.5 cm apart.
Daffodil: Daffodils are also called Narcissus, which you’ll want to look for if you’re hoping to plant varieties other than the classic lemon yellow. Daffodil varieties can vary in the amount of space they’ll need, but they all do best if planted a little earlier than most bulbs. Aim to have them in the ground by mid-October.
Hyacinth: A treat for the senses, hyacinths are as well-known for their potent fragrance as they are for their gorgeous clusters of flowers. In the fall, hyacinth bulbs should be planted with the pointed end facing up and spaced 10 cm apart. They perform best in areas with full to partial sun. During their spring blooming period, hyacinths make absolutely incredible cut flowers.
Eranthis: Along with snowdrops, eranthis will be some of the first flowers in your garden to bloom in the spring. It’s not uncommon for them to peek out of the last few drifts of snow! The teacup-shaped yellow blooms look stunning in large groups spaced closely together—about 5 cm apart.
Fritillaria: Also known as Crown Imperial, these bell-shaped beauties have a unique presence in the spring garden. Plant 15-30 cm deep in full sun and space them out 20-23 cm apart. Their fragrance also helps to repel insects and squirrels in the garden!
Allium: Sometimes called ornamental onion, allium’s spectacular globe-shaped blooms on a straight stem make a big statement in late spring to early summer. Plus, they are another key player in repelling insects and squirrels (again, it is an onion!). Space them out 5-20 cm apart, depending on the size of the bulb. Space bulbs out by approximately twice their width.
Protecting Bulbs from Pests
You’re not the only one with a plan for those big, beautiful bulbs! Plenty of critters adore bulbs as a food source during the fall, so it’s wise to plan for scavengers.
At the time of planting, bulbs do best when their soil is enriched with some nutrient-dense organic fertilizers. At our garden centre, we carry hen manure and blood meal, which both make excellent accompaniments for your bulbs. Not only do the bulbs thrive on their nutrients, but also the smell of both fertilizers is deterrent to squirrels and chipmunks.
Daffodils are generally not adored by squirrels (some of the most notorious bulb thieves), so planting them plentifully around your other varieties may dissuade squirrels from ripping up the garden.
Some gardeners have luck with placing chicken wire over their freshly planted bounty to create a physical barrier between the pest and the plant. Tamping down the soil to cover the scent of the bulbs also helps, as does layering on mulch and/or landscaping fabric.
Tulips are probably the biggest target for pests, so if you can only protect one plant, guard those tulips!
By now, the sun is going down earlier and the days feel shorter every day. In other words, what are you waiting for?! Visit us at Royal City Nursery today to browse our bulb selection—before that planting window closes for the year!