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Planting Bulbs Now Pays Big Dividends Later

Every fall I plant 100 or more bulbs for spring enjoyment. I treat tulips as annuals, daffodils as workhorses, and snowdrops as the first harbingers of spring. This year I focused on the small bulbs: Scilla, specialty crocus, grape hyacinths and winter aconite. The nice thing about small bulbs is that they can be planted where the bigger ones would not work: close to the base of trees. Most big tree roots are two inches or more down from the soil surface — giving enough depth for planting the little guys above them.

On a recent sunny morning I planted $100 worth of small bulbs — just 90, as small is not necessarily inexpensive — around the base of a Seven-Sons Flower tree (Heptacodium miconioides) that’s in full bloom right now. It’s a fast-growing small tree with nice shaggy bark — and one of the few trees I have that blooms in the fall.

Last summer I had weeded out the area and mulched with ground branches that I got from my local arborist. I started by raking all the mulch off the soil so I could easily plant my bulbs.

Next I took the packages of bulbs and arranged them on the ground in a way that I thought would look good. Most of these early spring bloomers are in the blue to purple range. The exceptions are snowdrops (white) and winter aconite, which is yellow.

I planted two species of winter aconite: Eranthis cilicica and E. hyemalis. These little beauties are in the buttercup family and look like buttercups growing just an inch off the ground. The blossoms are small, less than an inch across, but very cheerful when blooming in March. I have grown winter aconite before, but the bulbs died out and I decided to try again.

The instructions said to soak the tubers before planting, which is not needed for ordinary bulbs. These little tubers are hard to decipher: they are nearly round and have no immediately obvious root zone or growing tip. Perhaps if I had soaked them overnight they would have swelled up and helped me determine which end is up. But I was in a hurry, so I just guessed how to plant them and hoped for the best. I have read that a tulip planted upside down wastes a lot of energy sending its shoot down, then up to reach the surface.

I plant small bulbs about 2 inches beneath the soil surface. First I use my CobraHead weeder to scratch the soil, loosening it. Because I was planting just a few inches from the tree trunk, I was careful not to dig down deeply for fear of damaging tree roots. I sprinkled some bulb booster on the soil and an inch or so of mature compost. (Bagged organic fertilizer would have worked well, too). I scratched everything in and was ready to plant.

To plant the bulbs, I arranged them on the soil surface in a somewhat random pattern. To my eye, bulbs arranged in neat rows are less pleasing than bulbs planted in a cluster or polka dot pattern. I plant small bulbs 10 to 15 per square foot. I set the bulbs on the ground with the growing tip up ­— it is generally the pointy end. Then I pull back the soil with my finger or the CobraHead and drop each bulb in place. I smooth the soil and pat it down, and finally replace the mulch.

In the center of each grouping of bulbs I put the plastic name tag that came with my bulbs. That tag won’t be there forever, just until I see how any given variety performs. If I really like a specific crocus, for example, I can order more next year. Having lots of tags poking up out of the mulch looks silly, so I’ll remove them next summer.

I also planted some Scilla bifolia. All scilla (also called squill) are early blooming, and the kind I have (S. siberica) is a very intense purple, but the blossoms face downward. This one is described as blue-lilac with pale blue centers. In the catalog the blossoms appear to be looking up, which I like. A plant similar to (and often confused with) scilla is glory of the snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) — which does look upward.

I have found, at least in my garden, that scilla do not tend to spread quickly, but that glory of the snow and snowdrops do spread well. Snowdrops multiply and spread particularly well on hillsides — plant them on the top and, as if by magic, they flow downhill in a few years. And if you plant on a south-facing hillside, snowdrops will bloom in early March, or even in February if the year is not too snowy.

Your local garden center, feed-n-grain or grocery store will have all the common bulbs, and may have some of the less common ones. If you really want to explore bulbs, I like Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a family-run specialty bulb company in Virginia. (877-661-2852.) I like that often when I call to order, Becky herself answers the phone — and can answer all my questions.

Some people buy fancy wine. They think nothing of spending $20 or more on a bottle that will be gone in an evening. Not me. But I think nothing of spending $100 on bulbs. They won’t give me immediate gratification, but come spring I’ll be delighted.

Henry Homeyer’s Web sites are www.henryhomeyer.com and www.Gardening-Guy.com. He is the author of five books and lives in Cornish Flat.