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Blackwelder column: Plant bulbs now for spring color

Although spring is nowhere in sight, it is time to consider planting bulbs for early spring color. Bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and crocus need to be planted soon.
Fall planting aids in good root development and satisfies the cool temperature requirements of bulbs. A good selection of bulbs is now available from local garden shops and retail outlets. Select bulbs that are firm and healthy. Small nicks and loose skins do not affect the growth and development of the bulb. In fact, loose skins aids in inspection for diseases and other deformities.
The size and number of blooms per bulb is directly related to the size of the bulb. Small economy bulbs, sold by the hundreds, are no bargain when bulbs produce small, less attractive blooms later in the spring. Large, healthy bulbs produce large, showy blooms.
Store the bulbs in a cool, dry location (55-60 degrees) before planting. Do not store bulbs in the refrigerator. Daffodil bulbs have similar appearance to onions and are very poisonous! Also, do not store the bulbs near ripening fruit such as apples and other tree fruits. These fruits produce ethylene gas which will affect the flowering process.
Well drained soils are essential for adequate bulb growth. Avoid planting in poorly drained soils. Tight clay soils should be amended with top soil, ground bark or composted material worked into the soil. Raised beds that include good topsoil and soil amendments are excellent areas to plant bulbs.
Soil pH is an important factor in bulb growth and development. Bulbs grow best in soils with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0. A soil test may reveal the need for dolomitic lime to raise the pH of Rowan’s naturally acidic soils.
The planting procedure in the fall is important for later spring performance. Small-sized bulbs (1 inch in height) should be planted 4-5 inches deep. Larger bulbs (2 inches or more in height) should be planted 7-8 inches deep, with the depths measured from the base of the bulb to the soil line. Try to loosen the soil under the bulb before planting. Large bulbs should be planted 3-6 inches apart and small bulbs 1-2 inches apart. Small and large bulb varieties can be inter-planted.
Bone meal is an organic fertilizer generally used to help promote bulb establishment and growth. However, research has shown that the processing that goes into making bone meal removes much of the nutrients. Other experts lament the fertilizer actually attracts animals such as raccoons, voles and other rodents. Specialized bulb food or fertilizers are now available that help promote growth and development.
Cover the bulbs with half the soil backfill, water thoroughly and finish covering with remaining soil. Cover the planted bulbs with 2-3 inches of mulch to conserve water and reduce winter weed growth. Irrigate as needed during winter droughts.
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Darrell Blackwelder is an agricultural agent in charge of horticulture with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County. Call him at 704-216-8970.

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