How to get the most out of your spring bulbs

  • Article by: GAIL BROWN HUDSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 22, 2013 - 3:09 PM

Be wise and plan for impact, choose bulbs with punch and longevity – and plant now.

It’s the eye candy of spring. Nothing can compare to the bright splashes of color that bulbs can bring to a winter-weary Minnesota landscape.

Thing is, you have to do the work now.

“In the spring, people see the alliums are blooming and they come to us and say, ‘Where are those plants?’ ” said Scott Endres, co-owner of Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis. Of course, they’re not in the greenhouses in spring because, like other spring-blooming bulbs, they must be planted in the fall.

Right now, in fact.

Good thing that planting bulbs isn’t much work. All you need to do, said Endres, is “dig a hole, drop a bulb and you’re done.”

Going native

If you want maximum impact with minimal effort, select bulbs that naturalize, or come back each year and spread — such as crocus, scilla, hyacinth, striped squill, snowdrops, glory-of-the-snow or even the checkered lily (Fritillaria meleagris). (Yes, this delicate flower really has checks and, yes, it’s a bit tricky to grow.)

Neil Anderson, a floriculture professor at the University of Minnesota, recommends a dwarf, buttercup-shaped beauty called winter aconite (Eranthis), which blooms very early, even before snowdrops do. “It’s virtually unknown in the U.S. but immensely popular all over Europe,” he said. “And it naturalizes very easily.”

For something more native looking, he recommends trout lily (Erythronium), with its lovely speckled leaves.

Tried and traditional

If you can’t bear to go without traditional bulbs such as daffodils and tulips, try to make smart selections.

For example, some daffodils stay in one spot, while others multiply and spread. If you want drifts of daffodils, Anderson advises choosing varieties such as Ice Follies, Scarlet Gem and Unsurpassable, or Téte-a-téte, a miniature.

When Endres plants tulips, he chooses those with interesting foliage, such as Orange Sunrise, which he calls “just about the happiest thing you see when it’s blooming.” But while its orange blooms “catch your eye,” said Endres, “up close you can see the alligator-like pattern with red and green in the leaf itself.”

In for alliums

Alliums top Endres’ list of bulb favorites, including Pinball Wizard, a new giant allium that boasts a tight cluster of silvery, lilac petals in 6- to 8-inch orbs.

Susie Bachman West, vice president of marketing and sales at Bachman’s, also likes alliums, because they come in a wide range of colors and sizes, from “one giganteum variety that gives you that big purple flower head on the top all the way down to tiny alliums that pop up. Some varieties when they come up look like hair — chartreuse green — like somebody had a bad hair day.”

Shop smart

When heading to the garden center, Endres said, it’s important to develop a plan and “not be a kid in a candy store.”

Consider color, space and impact. “Don’t just plant one bulb,” he said. “Plant at least 10 or 15 or 20 of something in order to get that impactful drift of color in the spring. Otherwise, the garden becomes a hodgepodge of different things.”

If you have limited time or money, plant one “drift of color” this year, then add to it next fall.

Buy bulbs that feel firm to the touch, not mushy or dried out, and have no signs of fungus.

Prepackaged or DIY

Packages containing a mix of colors and kinds of bulbs are popular at garden centers now, according to Bachman. “It takes all the guesswork out of it,” she said. “You just grab that package and plant it according to the directions.”

If you prefer to create your own combinations, Endres suggests choosing tulips with more saturated colors and mixing them with other spring plants.

“It might be pretty if you have an established batch of lamb’s ears with that pretty silvery leaf, and plant something that complements that, such as Poet’s Daffodil or a grape hyacinth. Then, later on, put some giant alliums behind that. One kind of combination can lead to another.”

Another tip: Keep notes so you know what you’ve planted and where.

Plant now

Daffodils should be planted by the end of this month. And, while it’s possible to plant other bulbs right up until the ground freezes, who would want to plant in the bone-chilling cold?

After you plant, be sure to cover the area with a thick layer of mulch, such as leaves or hay.

To stop squirrels and chipmunks from digging up your tulips, lay some chicken wire on top of your bulb beds and anchor it in place. (Just remember to remove it once the ground is frozen in fall or in early spring.)

Got voles and mice? Recent research from Cornell University found these critters avoid daffodils, chionodoxa, fritillaria and snowdrops.

 

Gail Brown Hudson is a Minneapolis freelance writer, working on a master’s degree in horticulture at the University of Minnesota.

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