Falling for Bulbs: The time to plant for spring is now!

With Autumn barely beginning to hit its crimson and gold stride, it may be hard to think about Spring–but to enjoy those tulips, daffodils, and other beautiful bulbs next year, it’s time to get growing!

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For a brilliant spring display, tulip and other spring flowering bulbs need to be planted in the fall.

Chilling out:

Spring-blooming bulbs need to be planted in Autumn so they will have time to form strong roots before the ground freezes.  The best time to plant them is mid-September through late October when the soil temperature falls below 60°F. This allows roots enough time to develop.

Bulbs need time to get established before winter’s freezing weather sets in, and they need to spend enough time in cool soil temperatures to be properly chilled.”

Good bulbs gone bad…

When buying bulbs, look for ones that are plump and firm; avoid any that are soft, rotted, moldy, dented or nicked.


Although the ideal time for planting bulbs is September and October,
technically bulbs can be planted right up until the ground freezes.


Once purchased, it’s important to get bulbs in the ground as soon as possible to prevent them from drying out.  If you can’t plant them right away, be sure to store the bulbs in a cool, dark place and plant them as soon as conditions permit.

Keeping bulbs cool is important: if temperatures during storage exceed 80°F for too long, flower buds can be killed, especially heat sensitive bulbs like tulips.

Well grounded:

Many winter hardy bulbs are left in the ground year after year and can provide years of seasonal color in your landscape.  To make the most of your time and money investments be sure to give them a good start.  To that end, it’s always best to have a soil test done before adding bulbs to your garden. A pH of 6.0 to 7.0 is optimal for most bulbs. Adding limestone or wood ash can raise pH if needed, while additional sulfur or aluminum sulphate can help lower a too-high pH.  Your soil test results will tell you what amendments you need (if any), and give you detailed information on recommended amounts.  (See  Soil Testing for more information on how to have a soil test done.)

Photo by Catherine Horgan

Daffodils benefit from being periodically dug up and divided. Clumps that become overcrowded end up being full of lots of small, undersized bulbs, because the area has become too crowded for bulbs to expand. (Photo by Catherine Horgan)


Fall planted bulbs must be well rooted before the ground freezes, so timing and preparation is key for a successful design.


Where, oh where?

Spring flowering bulbs can cover a lot of ground–literally.  They not only bloom in a fabulous range of colors, shapes and sizes, they also thrive in a wide variety of conditions. For a list of bulbs that grow well in our area along with their bloom times, see our Spring Blooming Bulb List.

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Consider planting groups of bulbs near entrances and along walkways where they can be enjoyed by visitors and passers by.

As a rule, bulbs grow best when planted in areas that have well-drained soil, where they will receive full sun to light shade. When deciding where to place them, keep in mind that it’s often still cold and bleak when the first spring bulbs break through.  Consider planting them where they can be seen from inside the house–that way you can enjoy their sunny disposition without having to experience winter’s lingering chill first hand.  Some other prime viewing areas: next to walkways and entry doors, under deciduous trees, in front of evergreens and in open flower beds.

Photo by Betty Scarlata

Tall alliums can make a dramatic statement. Planting them behind later sprouting perennials will help hide yellowing foliage. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

When it comes to color, spring bulbs come in every shade imaginable, from vibrant primary hues to soft pastels–so countless combinations are possible. And since most bulbs only bloom for about 2 weeks, they don’t compete color-wise with flowers that bloom in summer or fall so design away!

For more garden design ideas, see our fact sheet on the Basics of Flower Gardening.


Most bulbs bloom for about 2 weeks or so depending on temperature.


Drift away:

Regardless of where they are sited, bulbs tend to look best when planted in masses or large drifts, not one here and one there.  Planting in natural looking clumps also looks better than setting flowers in thin, straight lines. Try planting large numbers of bulbs (200 or more) in those areas that are more than 30 feet from windows and walkways for added punch.

Photo by Margaret

For the best display, plant bulbs in large numbers rather than individually or in straight rows. Buying in bulk can save money and excavating larger areas saves time. (Photo by Margaret Montplaisir)

When planting large numbers of bulbs of the same size, it’s easier to excavate the whole area to the proper depth, instead of trying to dig individual holes.  Bulbs can then be laid out more easily, and the soil (and any amendments) can simply be filled in around them. But when planting bulbs in between other plants, or when planting bulbs of different sizes, it might be easier to plant them individually rather than disturbing established plantings.

Faded glory:

One of the biggest consideration when deciding where to plant spring bulbs is how to deal with the yellowing foliage. However, it’s very important that leaves remain on the plant after flowers have finished blooming and not be removed or mowed off until they turn yellow and die back naturally.  Those decaying leaves manufacture nutrients which are stored for next year’s growth and bloom and are essential to the plant’s survival. If the foliage is removed too early, the plant loses its ability to “recharge” itself, weakening it, and causing it to eventually die off.

Bulbs like these snow drops can  be “naturalized” or planted outside of bed areas. But be sure to plant them in areas that won’t need mowing late spring. (Photo by Catherine Horgan)

While the foliage on smaller bulbs such as snowdrops and squill will fade fairly quickly, the leaves of larger bulbs –like tulips and daffodils — can take several weeks to die back.

Here are some strategies for coping with yellowing bulb foliage:

  • Interplant spring-blooming bulbs with cold-tolerant annuals, such as pansies
  • Use groundcovers such as periwinkle or pachysandra
  • Plant bulbs in between perennials like hostas, daylilies, and ferns
  • Locate bulbs behind taller perennials or shrubs
  • Plant bulbs under low-growing groundcover shrubs like junipers, cotoneasters, or roses

Depth Perception:

Making sure bulbs are planted at the proper depth is key to bulb success, so be sure to check the instructions that comes with each variety of bulb you have purchased. Proper planting depth for each species should be clearly specified.

As a general rule, bulbs are planted 2 1/2  to 3 times the diameter of the bulb itself.  This estimate should be adjusted based on the type of soil they are being planted in however, with bulbs set somewhat deeper in sandy soil and somewhat shallower in heavy soils.

Photo by Betty Scarlata

Bulbs need time to get established before winter’s freezing weather sets in, and need to spend enough time in cool soil temperatures to be properly chilled. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Correct planting depth is key. Shallow planting of tulips and daffodils is a common cause of failure to thrive or return to bloom a second year.

Cold Comfort:

Spring blooming bulbs are hardy and generally do not require protection from the cold. However, 2″ of mulch can be applied after the ground is frozen to protect bulbs from heaving caused by alternate freezing and thawing; and to prevent premature emergence during warm spells in winter. For more info, see MULCH for the HOME GROUNDS

Well…water!

Fritillaria (Photo by Theodora Wang)

Be sure the soil doesn’t dry out during the drought spells that can occur in fall and early winter –since this is the time when bulbs’ roots are forming.
(Photo by Theodora Wang)

Once your bulbs are tucked snugly into their beds, be sure to water them thoroughly. Watering will help settle the soil and provide needed moisture for the bulbs to start rooting.

Be sure the soil doesn’t dry out during the drought spells that can occur in fall and early winter –since this is the time when bulbs’ roots are forming. Avoid over-watering though, which can cause bulbs to rot.

Bulb Bandits:

Unfortunately, it’s not only winter-weary humans who find spring flowering bulbs highly attractive. Deer, rabbits, voles and other animals love them too and enjoy to dining on the foliage, flowers, and bulbs of many spring bloomers. If critters are a problem in your area, try covering susceptible bulbs with wire mesh screening.  This allows the shoots to grow through the holes, while keeping pests out.

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Crocus are among the bulbs most likely to be eaten by animals. Other critter favorites include tulips and grape hyacinth; but adding a little protection in the fall and spring can increase your chances for success. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

There are a number of repellents on the market which can also be effective.  Consult your local Cooperative Extension office/Master Gardener Helpline for up-to-date pest control advice.

Daffodils, which are poisonous, are generally left alone by deer and rodents. Other bulbs that are less likely to be damaged by animals include ornamental onion and squill.  Bulbs that are most likely to be eaten by animals include tulips, crocus, and grape hyacinths.  To learn the susceptibility of each bulb type, download Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance.

Forcing the issue

Many of the bulbs that are planted outdoors can be made to flower indoors weeks earlier by potting them up in the fall and “forcing” them. The process involves placing newly potted bulbs in a cool (35°-50°F) location for 10 to 15 weeks to allow for root development.

Photo by Catherine Horgan

Many bulbs can be potted up and “forced” to bloom earlier. (Photo by Catherine Horgan)

They can then be “forced” or induced to bloom early by bringing them into a warm room where they can begin to grow well ahead of the spring thaw. The most popular spring bulbs for indoor flowering are hyacinths, tulips, daffodils and other narcissi, and crocuses. Others, such as Siberian squill, star of Bethlehem, snowdrops, grape hyacinth, and Dutch and reticulata iris are also attractive and force well. For how to’s, check out FORCING BULBS FOR INDOOR BLOOM

Plant it forward:

Even though spring may seem a long way off right now, a little planning this fall can bring sunny drifts of daffodils and sweeping swaths of crocus to your yard to brighten those chilly spring mornings. So plant yourself –and the rest of us – a sweet spring surprise this fall. You’ll be glad you did!

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Few plants are as eagerly anticipated as the flowers that bloom in the spring! Daffodils, tulips, crocus, and the other early bulbs are a welcome change from winter dreariness. To be able to enjoy these blooms in your garden next spring, fall is the time to plant!

References

For more on planting and caring for Spring Bulbs see:

Spring Flowering Bulbs

SPRING BLOOMING BULBS

Bugs Rule: Insects you actually WANT in your garden

What better way to experience the wonder of bugs than to get out into nature and experience them for yourself?

What better way to discover the intriguing world of bugs than to head out there and experience them for yourself? (Photo by Betty Scarlata)


Now’s a great time to celebrate all the flying, hopping, swimming, creeping, crawling, and utterly fascinating insects that share our world…


What’s the buzz? If you are among those who think bugs are as at best annoyances and at worst things to be eradicated from your yard, you may be surprised to learn that insects of all sorts play a huge role in our world.  In fact, there are more types of insects on our planet than any other kind of animal!  And while a small percentage are considered harmful to humans or property, the vast majority of insects are highly beneficial to people, gardens and the environment at large.

More than just beautiful, butterflies help pollinate flowers and their caterpillars provide food for lots of other animals. (Photo by ____)

More than just beautiful, butterflies help pollinate flowers and their caterpillars provide food for lots of other animals. (Photo by David Byers)

Bugs with benefits: While most people know that food crops depend heavily on bees, butterflies and other insects for pollination, it may come as a surprise that when it comes to controlling backyard pests and plant diseases, insects themselves can provide the best means of control.

Certain types of “beneficial” insects – namely those that that feed on other more harmful bugs—actually offer a safer and more effective approach to pest management.  They are not only highly effective at reducing the infestation levels of harmful pests, but a healthy population of  “good bugs” can also save money by reducing the need for costly (and toxic) pesticides. It’s a garden win-win.

For a list of some of the top beneficials in our area, see our fact sheet on BENEFICIAL INSECTS.

Putting bugs to work for you:  Beneficial insects can be be found just about anywhere.  The trick to taking advantage beneficials, is getting a sufficient number of them to hang around long enough to keep pest species in check. Turns out that beneficials will only stay on your property if they find enough harmful insects to feed upon.  So you can forget about using traditional chemical controls. Pesticide sprays wipe out both beneficial insects and their food source, which can lead to an even worse  situation, since it often leads to a rebound in the original pest population.

Yarrow is just one of the flowers that can attract beneficials to your yard. (Photo by ___)

Yarrow is just one of the flowers that can attract beneficials to your yard.

Finding fast food: Another key to getting beneficial insects to set up shop in your yard is providing food for all stages of their lifecycle.  For most full grown insects, this means flowers.

When deciding what to plant, it’s a good idea to select a wide variety of flowers that provide constant bloom from spring through fall. Pollen and nectar from wildflowers are especially attractive to beneficial insects and encourage them to lay their eggs nearby. Some particular favorites of beneficial insects are: daisy, black-eyed Susan, sunflower, ornamental goldenrod, yarrow, aster, and Queen Anne’s lace.

Herbs such as parsley, dill, fennel, catnip, spearmint, and thyme also attract beneficials.  For a list of other plants that are favorites of beneficial insects, see Attracting Beneficials.

Photo 2Herb Gardens like this one at Mercer Educational Gardens are magnets for beneficial insects offering food, shelter and a place to raise young. (Photo by ____)

Herb gardens, like the one above at Mercer Educational Gardens, are magnets for beneficial insects offering food, shelter and a place to raise their young. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

Looking for inspiration? Any garden type or style can become a “good bug” hub. If you’re wondering how to put it all together where you live, try visiting a few insect-friendly gardens like the ones at Mercer Educational Gardens.   All of the seven demonstration gardens there — Annual, Butterfly, Cottage, Herb, Native Plant, Perennial and Weed ID– are pesticide free and use Responsible Gardening Principles that support beneficial insects.

Mercer Educational Gardens is an award-winning garden that features seven display gardens that all adhere to principles of responsible gardening and pest management.

Mercer Educational Gardens is an award-winning site that features seven display gardens, all of which adhere to principles of responsible gardening and pest management. (Photo by Joe Scarlata)

A sheltered life: Beneficial insects need protection during the warm months and shelter during the winter. Be sure there is sufficient vegetation nearby (woods, weeds, mulch) to keep good bugs safe.  Hedges and foundation plantings also provide great protection for beneficials. Even garden pathways and borders play an important refuge role by offering soil-dwelling insects–like digger wasps–safe places to raise their young. Although digger wasps may look intimidating, they are nonaggressive and definitely do more good than harm.  For instance, the adult wasps pollinate plants by feeding on flower nectar, females prey on grasshoppers and similar pests that might otherwise cause a lot of damage to vegetable and ornamental plants, and by digging holes in the ground, digger wasps help to aerate the soil and improve drainage.

Great golden digger wasps look dangerous but they are beneficial insects that help keep garden pests in check. (Photo by Lan-Jen Tsai)

Great golden digger wasps look dangerous, but  are beneficial insects that help keep garden pests in check. (Photo by Lan-Jen Tsai)

Friend or Foe? Although most home landscapes support a wide assortment of bugs, it’s important for gardeners to be able to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Being able to identify what that thing buzzing or creeping through the backyard actually is, can be key to getting the full benefit from beneficials.

What the heck is that?! Teaching kids about insects and the many ways bugs benefit us can help them understand that not all insects are scary or icky.

What the heck is that?! Learning to determine which insects are garden pests and which are beneficials is key to creating a balanced backyard ecosystem.  (Photo by David Byers)

When you come across an insect you’d like to  identify, you can start by consulting a local field guide to insects or call the Master Gardener Helpline.

With a trusty field guide in one hand and the insect in quesiton in another, naturalists solve the puzzle of insect identification. (Photo by___)

With a trusty field guide in one hand and mystery insect in another, naturalists solve the puzzle of insect identification. (Photo by David Byers)

Master Gardeners can answer all kinds of questions about  insects–beneficial and otherwise— and can even tell you the key elements to look at when trying to figure out what type of  insect a specimen is.

If you are able to safely capture your mystery bug, you can also bring it by the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office, and talk to a Master Gardener in person.

Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer County Horticulturalist fields questions about bugs at a recent Insect Festival. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Barbara J. Bromley, Mercer County Horticulturalist, fields questions about bugs at a recent Insect Festival. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Kids love bugs! Parents who are considering adding beneficial insects to their yards, should be sure to include the kids in the experience.  Children, especially younger ones, seem naturally fascinated with all sorts of creepy crawlers.  By encouraging them to take a closer look at insects– as opposed to stepping on them or just saying “Yuck!” — can help kids develop a deeper appreciation for insects and how they benefit the environment.  And while not every kid is born a bug lover, showing them that not all insects are harmful, can at least give them a better appreciation for the role insects play in the world we share.

Bugs have a lot to teach us, and can develop important science skill like observation, categorization and identification. (Photo by ___)

Bugs have a lot to teach us, and can help kids develop important science skills like observation, categorization and identification. (Photo by Betty Scarlata)

Taking part in bug-centric events like Insect Festival can also help fuel kids’ natural curiosity.  Activities like tagging Monarchs can be an unforgettable experience for kids and can broaden their knowledge of a wide array of subjects –from the stages of insect metamorphosis—to geography, as they learn the route Monarchs travel on their annual migration to Mexico.

A newly emerged monarch butterfly tagged and ready to set off on it’s winter migration to Mexico. (Photo by ___)

A newly emerged monarch butterfly tagged and ready to set off on it’s winter migration to Mexico.
(Photo by David Byers)

Experiences that feed kid’s curiosity about insects at a young age can inspire a lifelong passion for the natural world.

 


Teaching kids about the many ways bugs benefit us can help them understand that not all insects are scary or icky.


Focus on fun.

Not every insect-related activity has to be focused on education.  Make sure to include insect activities that are purely for fun –like crafts, scavenger hunts and storybooks.

Bugs can be fun! Crafty little cardboard bees keep insect activities from becoming too serious. (Photo by____)

Bugs can be fun! Crafts like these little cardboard bees can keep insect activities from becoming too serious. (Photo by Eunice Wilkinson)

Anything that inspires kids (of any age) to go outside and explore the strange, incredible, and often beautiful insects of New Jersey is a big win for bugs, people and the planet.

Insects are amazing creatures and can inspire kids--of all ages-- to unplug and and go outside and explore. Photo by ____

Insects are amazing creatures and can inspire kids–of all ages– to unplug,  go outside, and explore. (Photo by  Betty Scarlata) 


References:

Attracting Beneficials

Beneficial Insects

Natural Pest Control

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