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Urban Gardening: How to Choose and Plant Bulbs

If you want to grow spring and summer flowering bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, lilies, and gladiolus, you can plant them in the fall (for spring-flowering bulbs) or the spring (for summer-flowering bulbs).

Planting bulbs is especially fun in urban gardens because you always get a pleasant surprise in the spring when they start popping up around the garden. Plus, they flower and then die back, giving way to other later blooming flowers that will take their place. It’s like having a succession of flowers in your small space.

Like perennial flowers, you can buy bulbs through the mail or at a local garden center. The advantages and disadvantages for each are the same. Generally, spring flowering bulbs are available for purchase in late summer and fall, while summer flowering bulbs are available mostly in spring. When shopping for bulbs, keep these tips in mind:

  • Pay attention to size. The larger the flowering bulb, the more likely it is to produce not just one but multiple flowers.

    Bulbs are graded by size, and of course, the largest bulbs are the most expensive. So if you’re planting a lot of bulbs, buying smaller bulbs is more cost effective. They’ll still flower, but they’ll need some extra nursing along, too. If you have a small space and want an immediate effect, go for the big ones.

  • Give them a squeeze. When buying bulbs locally, give them a squeeze. Avoid any bulbs that are soft, mushy, or spotted with disease. The papery husk around the bulb is called the tunic. Don’t worry if this is peeling off. It’s just a covering, and your bulb will grow just as well without it.

  • Avoid bruised bulbs. Stay away from bulbs with dents, bruises, and cuts. The bulb itself may be solid and firm, but the bruise could be an opportunity for rot organisms to start growing inside the bulb. Better to be safe than sorry.

  • Buy the right bulb for your yard. Check the hardiness zone rating for your bulbs and select ones that are adapted to growing where you live. Also, consider bulbs with specific traits, such as fragrant bulbs, shade-loving bulbs, and vole- and mice-resistant bulbs.

After you buy your bulbs, the steps for planting them are very straightforward:

  1. Prepare the soil.

    Bulbs grow best in well-drained, loose, fertile soil. Prepare your garden before you plant your bulbs, amending the soil with compost, especially if you have heavy clay soil.

  2. Decide where to plant your bulbs.

    Plant your bulbs in groups for the biggest visual effect. Bulbs look best when you plant them in odd-numbered groups, such as 3, 5, 7, or 9 bulbs per group. This type of grouping looks more stunning than growing them individually like little soldiers in a row.

    You can plant bulbs closely together, but don’t let them touch. Leave space between them so the bulbs aren’t so overcrowded that they have to compete for nutrients. Most packages have proper bulb planting instructions.

  3. Dig a hole.

    Planting depth is important here. You want to plant each bulb so the top tip of the bulb ends up being about twice as deep as the bulb is tall. For example, if your daffodil measures 2 inches from tip to base, dig the hole 6 inches deep so you end up with 4 inches of soil on top of the tip of the bulb.

    The ideal planting depth can vary, depending on where you live and the type of soil you have. Gardeners in warm climates may plant a little deeper than gardeners in cold climates. Gardeners with sandy soil plant 1 to 2 inches deeper, and gardeners with clay soil plant 1 to 2 inches more shallowly. Check your local Master Gardener or Extension Service office for information for your region.

  4. Plant the bulb with the flat end down and replace the soil on top of it.

    On most bulbs, the flat end is the end with the roots, so naturally, you want the roots to go toward the deeper soil, not the surface. However, bulbs are smart, so no matter how you plant them, their shoots will find their way skyward and the roots will grow down into the soil.

  5. Add fertilizer.

    Although compost is a good general soil additive, bulbs like phosphorous, so you should add a small handful of a granular fertilizer rich in this nutrient, such as bulb booster, mixing it into the hole before you plant. Be careful using bone meal because animals may think a dead animal is buried where your bulbs are and dig up the ground after you plant them.

If mice, voles, chipmunks, and other creatures treat your bulbs as a free meal, artery out the following tips to keep them away:

  • Plant your bulbs in a wire mesh cage so animals can’t dig down to them. Just make sure the top of the cage has wire mesh wide enough for the bulb shoots to poke through.

  • Plant types of bulbs that these underground critters detest, such as daffodils and fritillaria. Ringing susceptible bulbs with these less palatable ones may be enough to keep critters away.

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