Remember early last spring how desperate you were for some color and green in the garden? The winter cold and snow had departed leaving behind the brown, lifeless remains of last summer's garden. If you want to avoid this, now is the time to plan some early spring color into the garden. It's time to plant the spring bulbs.
Bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, crocuses and a host of lesser-known bulbs are best planted right now as the daytime temperatures are below 70 degrees and the soil is still diggable. As long as the soil is workable, you can plant bulbs. The local garden centers and nurseries have many temping offerings to make sure you take advantage of the season.
"Look for firmness in the bulbs," says Pat Hay, a local master gardener and landscape designer with a passion for bulbs. "They don't have to be the largest, but there shouldn't be any bruises and they should be a clean white color, free of nicks and breaks." Keep in mind when trying to decide how many to buy that you will probably be enjoying them from inside your house, so buy enough to create a big splash from a distance. Hay's rule is "if you are going to buy two, buy 10."
Bulbs are really not fussy about their growing conditions. They need a reasonable amount of sun, a good amount of organic matter worked into the soil, water and some protection from critters. Because they tend to come out before deciduous trees have leafed out fully, they make good under story plantings in these areas. In the past, the rules on how deep to plant bulbs were described in inches below the surface. Hay's experience over the years in the gardens she has developed has led her to use the rule of thumb that bulbs should be planted at a depth of three times their diameter. In sandy soils where the plants don't have to work as hard to send out stems and roots, plant them a little deeper. In clay soils where it is harder for a bulb to push up, plant them a little shallower. Dig down several inches below where the bulbs will be to loosen the subsoil. Mix in a couple of inches of compost. Firm the soils gently over the bulbs to remove air pockets and water well. If the fall has been dry, be sure to water the bulbs until it starts getting really cold or the rains come.
There is a great amount of debate among gardeners about what to do with the foliage of bulbs after they have finished blooming. While the floppy green leaves may look ratty and unkempt, they are hard at work making food to be stored in the bulb for next year's blooms. If you cut back the green leaves, the bulb will be less likely to produce the next season and will not last long in the garden. Hay suggests that the area where bulbs are planted should have other plants planted around them to hide the leaves. Small perennials can easily be put in beside bulb clusters this fall as you are planting.
One of the major problems gardeners have when growing bulbs is how to keep the critters out of them. Critters come in many sizes and shapes, from burrowing moles, mice and gophers to bunnies, deer, elk and moose. In Hay's experience living at Newman Lake, even fences don't work because, "the bunnies go under them, the deer hop over them and the moose walk through them." Deterrent sprays have to be put on at just the right time and usually the critters seem to know just which day you are going to do it and clean the plants off the night before. Planting bulbs in wire cages sunk in the ground will slow down burrowing critters but they are expensive and awkward. The best strategy is to plant stuff they don't like.
In Hay's case that is daffodils. Some others that are said to at least be deer-proof are alliums, grape hyacinth, giant hyacinths, scilla and snowdrops. "It takes some experimenting," she says. "If you try something and it gets eaten, try something else next year." Fortunately, bulb breeders have been working very hard to produce daffodils in a wider range of colors. Recent catalogs have them from the pure white "Mount Hood" to orange "Curly" to a salmon pink one called "Replete."
So find a spot you know you will be looking at out your window in the spring, and imagine the color of yellow daffodils, pink tulips and blue hyacinths there after the cold dark winter.