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Oct. 14, 2010 Volume 32, No. 8

Fall conditions are ripe for a blooming spring garden


MU expert shows how to keep your daffodils happy

Fall ushers in football, cooler temperatures and the perfect time for planning next year’s garden. 

Spring flowering or Dutch bulbs, including daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, need a chilling period of at least 12 weeks to develop a primordial flower, says David Trinklein, associate professor of plant sciences. They also need time dig in and develop some roots while the soil is still warm. 

“Any time in October or the first two weeks in November is ideal for planting Dutch bulbs,” he says. “If we don’t get them in early enough, the flower won’t develop in a timely fashion, and blooming the next spring will be arrested and, honestly, disappointing.”

In Missouri, daffodils are the most dependable as repeat bloomers in successive seasons because they can tolerate warm temperatures.  Tulips and hyacinths, however, do not bloom as vigorously the following seasons. It is a good idea to replant them each year, Trinklein says. 

The good news is most of the Dutch bulbs are usually pest free, partly because they are up and blooming before many of the insects have broken dormancy. “When we talk about low-maintenance gardening, spring flowering blubs are the way to go,” Trinklein says.

Before heading for the garden, consider these helpful tips. 

•Buying bulbs: Buy large, hardy bulbs that are firm and have no signs of rotting, softness or external damage like cracks and deep scratches. Also pass on bulbs that already are growing roots or shoots. 

Keep bulbs in a cool, dry location without direct sunlight until you are ready to plant them.

Choosing a site: Remember that spring flowering bulbs need well-drained soil, which can be a problem in some locations in Missouri. Bulbs can be subject to decay and rot, though the addition of organic matter to the area can help ease drainage. If that isn’t possible, plant in berms or raised beds. Never plant bulbs in poorly drained settings, Trinklein says, or they will not survive the first winter.

•Setting up the site: To prepare the planting beds, work up the entire area as opposed to using bulb planters or drills to plant bulbs one at a time. “If the soil is good to begin with or if it is an established bed that has been amended, those tools are a quick way to plant bulbs,” Trinklein says. “But if we are dealing with soil that is tight and heavy and poorly drained, then it is best to dig up the soil.”

For the first year, the bulbs contain all the nutrients needed for next season’s bloom. If the bulbs are to bloom year after year, Trinklein advises gardeners to incorporate some fertilizer into the bed before planting. “Adding a substance like bone meal that is organic and slow in releasing and doesn’t have a tendency to burn the root system as it develops is a good idea when planting the bulbs in October,” he says.

•Determining the depth: The rule of thumb is to plant bulbs at a depth that is three times their height, Trinklein says. For example, if daffodils or tulips are two inches tall, plant them six inches deep. Space the bulbs apart at a distance that is three times the width of the bulb. 

Position the bulbs so that the end where the foliage and flowers will emerge is pointing upward. The flatter, larger end goes on the bottom of the hole.

Water the bulbs after planting.

•Keeping critters at bay: During the first year, there is a danger that rodents like voles and field mice will feed on the bulbs. “They love tulips,” Trinklein says, adding that they won’t bother daffodils or hyacinths. Some people encase their bulbs in wire mesh to protect them, but he says it’s not often a serious problem.

•Protecting post-blooming bulbs: As the bulbs grow in the spring, they use up their storehouse of food and energy and need to produce more. Gardeners can help by letting the foliage grow as long as it can so the bulbs can feed themselves for the following year’s blooms. 

Once the blooms are gone, cut off the stalks but let the leaves remain until they have turned yellow, usually around mid-June. Daffodils spread further with each bloom season. When they become overcrowded, they will need dividing — usually every three to five years.

“After they have bloomed and the foliage has turned yellow, dig them up, divide them and store in a cool, dry place until fall,” Trinklein says. “Replant them in October.”