Q. I’ve been told to plant bulbs in clusters — why is this important?
A. Groups of bulbs make a much nicer show than individual “soldiers marching single file.” To create greater color impact in the garden, plant clusters of same-color flowers together in blocks or “bouquets.” Visually, you get more “bang for the buck.”
One trick: try positioning similar bulbs in a triangular planting pattern in the garden, with the point of the triangle towards the front and the long leg towards the back. The result: it will look as if you planted more flowers than you did. Generally, larger bulbs should be planted 3 to 6 inches apart, smaller bulbs 1 to 2 inches apart.
Q. How do I keep squirrels from digging up bulbs?
A. Squirrels can be terrible pests! They won’t bother daffodils and other narcissi bulbs (which taste terrible to them!), but they find tulips and crocus in particular to be worth the effort to sniff out and dig up. The only sure-fire way to protect tulips and crocuses and other tasty bulb treats from squirrels is to lay wire mesh such as chicken wire on top of the bed. The squirrels can’t dig through the mesh and the flowers will grow neatly through the holes.
Bulbs are most vulnerable in fall immediately after planting when the soil is still soft and worked up. Digging then is easy! Squirrels often “chance” upon bulbs when burying their nuts in soft ground. Or they are attracted by “planting debris” such as bits of papery bulb tunics and other bulb-scented bits from the bulb bags. Don’t advertise your plantingsclean up and keep those squirrels guessing! Here’s one neat trick that garden writer Judy Glattstein has found to work: after planting new areas, lay old window screens in frames on the ground, covering the newly-worked up soil.
Q. Should I apply mulch? How deep? When?
A. Mulch is not required but it is often beneficial. Three inches is plenty. Wait until the ground cools down. Contrary to popular notions, mulching over bulbs is meant to retain soil moisture and keep the ground temperatures cool and stable, not to serve as a “warm winter blanket” (except in the very coldest climates).
Mulch just before the ground freezes. Applying mulch too early in the season, when the ground is still soft and warm, can invite infestations by field mice and other critters who like to burrow in to establish winter quarters (and no doubt dig up tasty tulip treats!).
Q. Should I fertilize bulbs?
A. If you’re planting bulbs for only one year’s bloom, fertilizer is not needed. Bulbs already carry a season’s supply of food in the moist tissue surrounding the embryonic flower. For bulbs that you will naturalize or perennialize, you have the following options:
At fall planting time: for first year’s bloom, no fertilizer is needed for naturalized bulbs after the first season, there are three good options: a good organic compost or well-rotted cow manure worked into the soil when planting, and a mulch of this material, a slow-release bulb food, a combination of bone meal and an 8-8-8 or 10-10-10(NPK), fast-release soluble fertilizer (about one tablespoon per square foot).
In spring: again, for first year blooms, no fertilizer is needed. for naturalized plantings or perennializing plants, fertilizer considerations are: nothing further is needed if last fall you applied well-rotted cow manure or a slow release bulb food if you used bone meal and a fast-release fertilizer, you will want to apply a nitrogen-rich fast-release NPK fertilizer in the spring just as the shoots first emerge from the soil (which would be about 6 weeks prior to bloom).
Q. How soon should I plant my bulbs after I buy them?
A. Sometimes you will buy bulbs before you are ready to plant in order to get the best selection. While it’s always best to plant your bulbs as soon after you receive them as possible, when you have to wait, be sure to store the bulbs in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Some people keep their bulbs in the refrigerator crisper drawer, taking care to avoid storing them with ripening fruit. They should be fine for several weeks even months if properly handled. But don’t wait too long.
Ideally, you should plant six weeks or so prior to hard ground frosts in your area to allow ample time for fall root development. A tip: the proper time to plant is when ground temperature is below 60°F at planting depth (while this is not easy for most of us to gauge, it gives you some notion of what’s appropriate). If you don’t have six weeks lead-time, plant anywayeven if you have to hack your way through hard, chilled surface soil. (As always, be sure to water.)
The key: you must plant in fall to have blooms in spring. Even if planted late, bulbs will spring into action and try to start root growth. They are pre-programmed to grow and will do their best no matter how late you plant them.
Q. Is it true that bone meal is the best bulb food?
A. Once upon a time, bone meal was considered an excellent bulb fertilizer, but times have changed! Most bone meal today has been so thoroughly processed that the essential nutrients have been literally boiled out. Spring-flowering bulbs actually need no fertilizer for their first season of blooming.
A healthy Dutch bulb will already contain all the food it needs to support one season of spectacular growth. Bulbs that will be left in the ground to naturalize will benefit from well-rotted cow manure or special bulb fertilizer when the shoots first appear in spring and again the following fall.
Q. I have seen the same variety of bulb priced very differently, some very cheap and others quite expensive. What’s the difference?
A. In the auctions in Holland, bulbs are gauged by their caliber, or the measurement of the bulb’s circumference. For each particular variety: more mature bulbs are larger and yield bigger flowers. These demand a higher price. For high-profile bed plantings, it’s worth the higher price for the more mature, showier bulbs.
But younger (smaller caliber) bulbs, which are often sold at lower prices, can offer a great way of adding color to large areas or marginal areas of the yard where they can be left in place to naturalize and mature, thus gaining in size over time. A note: for quality control reasons, the Dutch do not export bulbs below certain established calibers.
For instance, tulips must be 10 cm or larger or the Dutch will not export them. This means that if you see tulip bulbs for sale that are smaller than 10 cm, they are notfrom Holland. In inches, that’s about 4 inches around. No exceptions are allowed… except for species tulips, which are naturally sized smaller.
Q. Do my trees and shrubs need to be fertilized during the summer?
A. Fertilization of woody ornamentals should cease around mid-July so plants have time to harden-off new growth before winter. Late summer fertilization can lead to winter-kill. Fertilization of annual flowers and vegetable plants should continue throughout the growing season. When using liquid fertilizer (scoops of soluble fertilizer granules added to water) it is best applied to moist soil. If necessary, water your annual flowers first, then apply the liquid fertilizer solution.
Q. The ornamental grass clump in our back yard still has alot of brown in it from last year. What should we do to get rid of it?
A. Ornamental grasses should be cut back to low (6 to 12 inch tall) clumps in late fall or early winter, every year. Use twine or a rubber strap to wrap the dead bundles tightly together before cutting them. This will ease cleanup work.
Q. The trees in my yard have silky tents in them!
A. Spring brings Eastern Tent Caterpillars with it, and the smaller, lower tents can be ‘rubbed out’ using a gardening glove, or sprayed with a properly labeled insecticide. The biggest problem is getting the insecticide to penetrate the webs, however, spraying still helps since caterpillars will come out to feed on surrounding foliage.
Q. What can I do to improve my annual flowers this year?
A. Good soil, nutrients and regular waterings are the 3 main ingredients for healthy flowers. Try mixing some mushroom manure in with your soil, or use it as a mulch. Mix some high-phosphorus fertilizer (phosphorus is the middle number “10” in: 5-10-5) into your flower bed and follow-up with liquid fertilizer such as Peters 20-20-20 or Bloom Booster. Keep flower beds watered — morning watering is the best; evenings are alright — the earlier in the evening the better.
Q. How often should I water newly planted trees and shrubs?
A. If there is less than one-inch of rainfall per week, thoroughly water new trees and shrubs once a week during the growing season (spring and summer). Newly planted flowers, sod and grass seed will have to be watered more frequently; sometimes daily.