You probably should have started a couple of months ago, when fall-planted bulbs first appeared for sale at garden centers and bulb catalogs showed up in your mail. Your selection would have been wider.
But the shops and catalogs still have some offerings, and while you can plant spring-flowering bulbs as early as September, you can put them in anytime before the ground freezes. With delectable-tasting bulbs such as tulips, planting them later means you reduce the chance of deer or other animals digging up the the bulbs and eating them before the ground freezes.
While on that topic, the traditional fertilizer for bulbs is bone meal, but bone meal also attracts wildlife. If you are going to fertilize, use a specialized bulb fertilizer that is not quite so aromatic. Having been in our house for almost 40 years, improving the soil all that time, we no longer add fertilizer when we put in the bulbs.
If you thought ahead, you marked where you need more bulbs for early-spring bloom. If you did not do that, just put them in where you think you’d like to see them. You can move them next year if you don’t like the look.
We plant most bulbs about 6 inches deep, but smaller bulbs could go in a bit shallower than that. The general rule is three times the height of the bulb. The flowers look better if you plant them in groups, and you can put four or five large bulbs per square foot of garden space and 10 to 15 per square foot for small bulbs.
You also can plant the bulbs in containers, water them once and put them in an unheated garage for the winter. Take them outside in spring, and you will have flowering bulbs wherever you want them.
What follows is a rundown on fall-planted bulbs.
The narcissus family, including daffodils, are the easiest bulbs to grow. They are poisonous, so the pests leave them alone. Also, daffodils multiply in the ground over the years, blooming more prolifically in later years. After a decade of so, you can dig and divide them, giving you even more flowers in future springs.
The downside of narcissus and daffodils is that they come in only white and shades of yellow to orange, although the shapes and shades, size and fragrance vary widely. And, yes, some catalogs describe various daffodils as “pink” or “coral,” but they still seem orangey to me. We will be adding Tenby daffodils – a small heirloom variety introduced in 1796 – from Old House Gardens (oldhousegardens.com) and some from Fedco, which stopped taking bulb orders Aug. 31.
We like Old House Gardens because they sell a lot of older and somewhat rare bulbs, which gives our garden some personality. And we like Fedco because the co-operative sells a number of locally grown bulbs.
Tulips are more like annuals. They bloom best the first spring after they are planted, and wane some over the years. But tulips come in a wide variety of colors – pink, red, yellow, purples and even black. We bought Black Parrot tulips, because I have an obsession for black flowers and this is one of the best (and we already have “Queen of the Night” tulips), as well as a pink Estella Rijnveld and Peach Blossom tulips.
Alliums are the surprise of the bulb world. They are related to the onions, leeks and garlic you grow in the vegetable garden, but these are bred for their blossoms.
Alliums can grow is tall a 4 feet, and have blossoms as much as a foot in diameter, but there are also smaller ones. It is a good idea to intersperse alliums with other perennials, because allium stalk is 3 or 4 feet tall and looks stiff if without other plants or bulbs near it..
While you think of allium blossoms as a perfect globe, some of them are more unusual. We have one called Schuberti that is 18 inches tall with long tendrils in the blossom, making it look a bit like antennae on a space satellite.
Hyacinths are a wonderful plant. They look good, but their prime attribute is their aroma. Plant them near where you will walk by them when leaving the house, and you will have the fragrance in your mind for the rest of the day.
For many years we did not grow crocus. They are small and don’t last long, and since they bloom in March or early April, they are loners rather than part of the landscape. In recent years we have found they are worth it, just for the thrill of seeing blossoms in the garden before the snow is even gone.
Scilla is another small, early flower that can take a lot of shade. You really need a lot of them to make much of an impact.
I have fallen in love with fritillaria over the past few years. They can be as short as 6 inches tall, but the ones I like are closer to 3 feet tall, and have big and blousy bell-shaped flowers on the top of a single stem. They are a plant you notice from a distance.
Camassia is an unusual plant that deserves to be more popular, a U.S. native sometimes called Wild Hyacinth that can stand some shade and some damp soil, and has blue flowers that open progressively from the bottom up.
Lilies and peonies show up in the fall bulb catalogs, and you can plant them in the fall – but you don’t have to.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: