How to plant spring bulbs in Western New York

scilla bifolia rosea
A plant you may not be familiar with is scilla, which is resistant to deer and rodents. Shown here is Scilla bifolia ‘Rosea’ (Alpine Squill). It gets four or five inches tall, is lightly scented and naturalizes easily. Photo courtesy Van Engelen Inc.

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Want to get bulbs to bloom in spring and summer? Here’s your first tip: Plant in autumn.

Every spring, people walk into garden centers expecting to buy tulips and other bulbs to plant immediately in their gardens.

It’s understandable, said Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager at Urban Roots Cooperative Garden Market, 428 Rhode Island St., Buffalo. With most other plants, when you see them flowering outside, that’s the time to plant them. With bulbs, you have to plan ahead.

Read on for more tips on how you can get beautiful spring flowers in your garden.

When to plant bulbs

The time to plant bulbs is in October or November.

Wait until soil temperatures have cooled down to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. (Narcissus can take a warmer 60 degrees.) It’s best to plant after a killing freeze.

“Cool temperatures tell bulbs to produce roots,”  Jablonski-Dopkin explained, “while warm temperatures tell the bulb to produce flowers.”

Soil

Bulbs need well drained soil, she said. If the bulbs get too much water or get waterlogged, they can develop fungus or other diseases, or they may not develop roots.

If your soil is sandy loam, you’re lucky because it drains well. If you are like most Western New York gardeners and have clay soil, add compost or mulch leaf litter. You can also add sand to clay soil, but make sure you don’t use play sand; those granules are round and will only promote water retention, she said. You want all-purpose sand, builders sand or landscaping sand, which have sharp granules.

Bulbs like soil with a neutral pH of 6-7.

lant spring bulbs pointy part up
Plant spring bulbs pointy part up. When plants and flowers in your garden start to get small, dig up and separate your bulbs, such as the trio in the center.

Where to plant

Choose a location where the flowers will get five to six hours of sunlight. Don’t overlook “shady” areas. Varieties of bulbs that bloom before the trees leaf out can be planted in spots that will be shady later in summer, Jablonski-Dopkin noted.

tulip dasystemon
Tulipa dasystemon is a species tulip. Species tulips are the original tulips; the tulips you commonly see in gardens are hybrids. Species tulips produce several flowers on one stem. Gardeners also like them because specie tulips come back for many years while hybrid tulips may stop blooming after a few years. Species tulips are smaller than hybrids; Tulipa dasystemon gets only six inches tall. Photo courtesy Van Engelen Inc.

How to plant

Bulbs should be planted at a depth that is two to three times the height of the bulb.

The point of the bulb goes up; the root plate is on the bottom. (See photo above.)

“Don’t freak out if you see some growth on the bulb before you plant,” Jablonski-Dopkin said. “That’s natural for narcissus, crocus and muscari. Be gentle and don’t break the greenery.”

When you plant, loosen the soil two to three inches below the planting level to allow the roots to take hold quickly.

Instead of digging individual holes, it’s easier to dig a large area, Jablonski-Dopkin said. The excavation also provides for better drainage, plus large plantings tend to last longer than individual bulbs.

When you have prepared the area, press down the bulbs and cover with soil.

Some people say you don’t have to fertilize bulbs, but Jablonski-Dopkin feels that bulbs, especially the hybrid tulips, need some fertilizer. There are three windows for fertilizing: in the fall when planting, in the spring after shoots emerge and in the spring after the foliage is dead. You don’t need to fertilize in every window; she fertilizes when she is planting and after the foliage is dead.

The one time when you shouldn’t fertilize is when the flowers are blooming. The bulb has everything it needs to generate the flower; it doesn’t need to take in more nutrients at this point, she said.

Once you have your bulbs planted, don’t forget to water.

“Bulbs need water to start root development,” she said. Watering also helps to settle the soil.

Mulching on top can be helpful to prevent the ground from heaving if temperatures aren’t steady throughout the winter. The mulch also helps maintain optimal moisture. Apply two to three inches of mulch for tulips or bigger bulbs and use light mulching for smaller bulbs.

Divide bulbs

If you have an established garden, you may find that your plants and flowers start to get small. That’s a signal that it’s time to dig up the bulbs and divide them, she said. You can do that now.

species tulip 'Ballerina'
The tulip ‘Ballerina’ is in the lily flowering class–notice the pointed petals. The colors are attractive up close as well as from a distance: marigold-orange with scarlet flames, feathered lemon-yellow petal edges and red interior. The plants can get 22 inches tall, but the stems are thin; plant the bulbs in an area protected from wind. Photo courtesy Van Engelen Inc.

You can also do it spring, but it’s better–and easier–to do it in autumn. In spring, when you have dug up the bulbs, you have to remove the dead foliage, separate the bulbs and allow them to dry, then store until fall and replant.

In autumn, you can simply separate the bulbs and replant immediately.

In spring

When the plant is done flowering, cut the flower heads off.

“You don’t want the energy to go to seed production,” Jablonski-Dopkin said. “Seeds take food away from the bulb; you want the energy to go back into the bulb.”

Keep the leaves on the plant while they are green. Through photosynthesis, the leaves will work to recharge the bulb. The plant needs the energy stored in the bulb to produce a new flower next year. If you cut off the leaves too soon, the bulb is unable to recharge. That will result in a smaller plant. There could be a gradual decline and your plants could die out.

If you don’t like the look of the yellowing leaves, you can interplant bulbs with cold hardy plants, such as hostas, pansies, daylilies, ferns or a groundcover such as woodruff, that will cover up the dying foliage .

4 Comments on “How to plant spring bulbs in Western New York

  1. Hi, Patricia. Yes, you can plant bulbs in pots and store the pots in an unheated garage or even outside. I would pile leaves on top of the pots to protect the pots and the bulbs from wild swings in temperature; they won’t be as protected as they would be in the ground. Most people who plant bulbs in pots at this time of year want to bring the plants inside and force them to flower sooner than they would outside. You could do that or just let them flower when they normally would. If you have several kinds of bulbs, you could plant them in layers in one big pot. I hope that helps! Stay warm!

  2. What if you’ve realized you missed a few bulbs and we just got 3 feet of snow? Can those be potted? Do you have a process for that?

  3. Bulb article is helpful. While fall planting (tulips for me) what deterrents might we incorporate to prevent squirrels from digging bulbs? I have used chili peppers, cut whole one or pepper flakes. I have buried lattice on top as a physical barrier. Any others to try?

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