Blackwelder column: Now is the time to plant spring bulbs

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2008

Now is an excellent time to plant spring-flowering bulbs. Recent rains have softened the soil, so digging holes should not be as bad as it has been in past fall seasons.
Home gardeners often ask specific questions concerning bulb care, so I’ve listed a few below that may be of benefit.
Question: What is a good bulb food for spring flowering bulbs?
Answer: Bulbs like phosphorus for root growth and producing good blooms. Use bonemeal in the backfill when planting. Fertilize with complete fertilizer during the growing season.
Question: When is the latest I can plant bulbs?
Answer: You need to plant them no later than end of November to middle of December. Bulb performances will vary size and quality, but the later in the season you plant, the less chance for a good bloom. Spring flowering bulbs planted in late winter or early spring will not bloom or the blooms will be sparse.
Question: I have voles that eat my tulips. What can I use to control voles?
Answer: Voles eat tulips and other bulbs, but not daffodils or narcissus. You need to trap the voles. Some use chicken wire around bulbs to make a physical barrier. The producers of Permatill, a soil amendment, touts the product (VoleBloc) which claims to keep voles away by making the soil uncomfortable for the burrowing animal.
Question: When is best time to move spring flowering bulbs?
Answer: Spring bulbs should be moved in the fall, so now is a good time to get started. Mark the plants in the spring for fall digging. Remove as much soil as possible, but avoid removing the “skin” or dried layer surrounding each bulb. If bulbs must be moved earlier in the year, remove as much soil as possible, store in a cool location or refrigerator until fall planting.
Question: Can I force bulbs now?
Answer: Yes. Spring blooming bulbs such as narcissus, tulips and hyacinth can be forced in the fall for bloom during the holidays. Other bulb species can be forced, but must be chilled. At the retail outlet, look for bulbs labeled “suitable for indoor forcing.”
Question: Are there any differences in bulbs you get from mail order catalogs or those sold in nurseries.
Answer: Maybe. Bargain bulbs at a ridiculously low price are no bargain. Large graded, No. 1 bulbs produce the best flowers and bloom more consistently. Avoid using poor quality bulbs. Bulbs should be firm, not mushy, with healthy scales. Avoid bargain bulbs left over from last year.
Question: What should I do after my bulbs bloom in the spring?
Answer: Dead head spent bulbs if practical and continue to water and fertilize. The foliage will eventually fade away or turn yellow. Once the foliage fades, it can be removed. Do not mow away foliage during the growing season.
Question: I have trouble with tulips and other bulbs re-blooming each year. What am I doing wrong?
Answer: This can have several causes. Bulbs may rot in soils that stay wet for a long time. Good drainage is essential. Bulbs may stop blooming if they become overcrowded or shaded too heavily. Sparse blooms on daffodils can be caused by planting too shallowly. If leaves are cut off too soon in spring, the bulb may not store enough food to bloom the following year. Many varieties of bulbs, especially tulips, will not produce flowers a second year in Southern climates.
Darrell Blackwelder is an agricultural agent in charge of horticulture with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County; call 704-216-8970.
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