When you think about grabbing a sweater or wearing a long-sleeved thermal T-shirt to work in the garden, it's time to plant spring-flowering bulbs.
Night temperatures are regularly in the low 50s and 40s, ideal planting weather for tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinths and other bulbs, such as fritillaries and alliums. As you clear space to dig and drop bulbs, it's a good time to give your garden beds one last good weeding before winter - and a headstart for next spring.
Think color and timing, recommend bulb experts, when selecting bulbs. They suggest "bloom teams" that will come into bloom about the same time, overlapping rather than performing like "synchronized swimmers." The best way to achieve this kind of timing is a mix of bulbs that bloom early, mid- and late in the season.
I prefer planting bulbs in a naturalistic way, rather than in soldierly rows, plopping them between perennials and hostas, at the feet of rose bushes and hydrangeas that will be emerging or greening up about the time (or later) that bulbs are dying back. I plant in clusters of five or seven, mixing tulips, daffodils, alliums and lately, guinea hens (fritillaria meleagris or checkered lily). Occasionally I'll spear a previously planted bulb, but no worries because I'll just add a new bulb as a replacement.
I generally work with a color scheme and textures - mixing parrots, lily-flowering, Darwin and other tulip styles in a range of pinks from light to dark, mingled with whites and a few pops of yellow, as well as yellow, white and bicolor daffodils in all shapes and sizes, along with purple and white alliums. I start by emptying all my bulb sacks into a bucket and gently tossing them. Then I simply reach in and grab bulbs and plant whatever comes to hand.
Another cool look is to scatter muscari, crocus and allium bulbs, for example, over beds where you don't really want to damage root systems of existing plants. These bulbs are buried more shallowly than tulip or daffodil bulbs, so you shouldn't harm roots and will be rewarded with an expanse of pretty spring blooms.
You can also plant in drifts and masses for dramatic impact - 20 or more- or cluster bulbs in circles or the shape of a triangle with the narrow point facing your view and the broader expanse toward the back to create a look of fullness.
One of the easiest ways to plant many bulbs is trenching or digging a large, wide and long hole. I also naturalize bulbs in my side yard by tossing the bulbs and planting them where they land.
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Plant bulbs at least six weeks before a hard frost to allow bulbs to root before winter. If the soil is too warm, bulbs may fall prey to disease.
Bulbs aren't dormant, so you can't save them to plant next spring or leave them out of the ground too long. If you find a bag of bulbs in the garage that you forgot to plant, pot them up and stash them in a chilly place like an old fridge or unheated garage and treat them as forced bulbs.
A rule of thumb for planting: Tulips, daffodils and other beefy bulbs should be planted about 8 inches deep (you can cheat a bit if you apply mulch when the weather turns colder. Smaller bulbs need to be about 5 inches deep. Water well after planting, and that's it.
Look for a well-drained location and don't forget that you'll have many more sunny areas in your yard because deciduous trees and shrubs will not be leafed out when most bulbs are blooming.
Do not fertilize the first year. It's a waste of effort and money and rings the dinner bell for squirrels who will sniff out your tulips and dig. (If you've got problems with furry critters like squirrels and deer, plant daffodils. They'll steer clear.) The following fall or early spring is the time to fertilize.
The good news is daffodils and bulbs like crocuses tend to naturalize, returning year after year. Most tulips, on the other hand, will have smaller blooms in subsequent years. Just keep adding new tulip bulbs each year and you'll never notice.