Imagine the most mighty plant, storing all of its power and energy during winter hibernation, waiting for the opportune moment to burst forth and signal spring’s advent. This is the glory of spring-flowering bulbs. For centuries, bulbs have inspired writers, florists, and gardeners with their gleaming petals.
Bulbs bring early spring color, peaking through winter’s last snowfalls. They require little maintenance, and many are pest and disease tolerant. Plan(t) ahead in the fall for springtime beauty!
The common term “bulb” actually refers to several subsets of the botanical group, the geophytes. Geophytes come in many forms, from true bulbs (tulips, alliums, daffodils), to corms (crocuses), to tubers (caladiums and elephant ears), and more. Today, we are discussing spring-flowering geophytes. However, we will refer to all using the general term “bulb.” Bulbs have modified storage organs underground which help them to enter a period of dormancy from which they will eventually emerge through the surface of the ground at just the right time. Talk about a powerhouse!
Fall is the time to start planting your spring-flowering bulbs like tulips and daffodils. As a general rule of thumb, gardeners in the Kansas City area should plant spring-flowering bulbs after Labor Day (when the soil temperature has begun to cool) and before November 1. Bulbs must be planted in the fall to allow for a 10-14 week chilling period in which root and flower formation are stimulated.
Are you an indoor/patio gardener? Spring flowering bulbs can be potted and “forced” indoors in the winter. Chill in your basement or refrigerator for the required length of time; then “wake” them up with the warmth of your home and bright indirect light to induce flowering.
Purchase your bulbs from a local garden center or other trusted source to certify their quality.
Well draining soil is key to successful flower development in bulbs. Though most bulbs tend to perform well in their first year because they have already built up their flower power, the true test of your soil and location’s success will be during the bulbs’ second and third years. To ensure greater success for your plants, prepare the soil for planting down to the first 12 inches, and mix ⅓ compost with the existing soil. Most gardeners like to mix bone meal or a bulb fertilizer that is high in phosphorus in order to give their bulbs’ roots a kick start. Plant your bulbs 2-3x as deep as they are high, or 4”-6” below ground. Mulch the area of planting with at least 2 inches of pine bark or cedar mulch.
For best seasonal color, plant bulbs en masse in groups of a dozen or more. Choose bulbs with varied flowering times for constant streams of color. For instance, plant crocus with daffodils and tulips to create continual color from early February to April.
Gardeners have a sundry of options when it comes to spring-flowering bulbs. Here are a few to get you started:
Late Winter-Early Spring
Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) & Crocus (Crocus spp.):
In late February and early March, snowdrops and crocus will begin to pop up from the slowly warming ground. Snowdrops have delicate, pendulous white flowers that are said to resemble drops of snow. Because they prefer the colder temperatures, plant snowdrop bulbs at the base of a large shrub or under the canopy of a tree whose emerging leaves will provide later protection from the warmth of the sun.
The white, yellow, and purple crocus flowers hale from the mountainous alpine regions of Europe. Like snowdrops, crocus can peak through late winter snowfall, a promising reminder that spring is coming! They are best planted in large groups beside sidewalks or in front of existing shrubs.
Grape Hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) & Daffodils (Narcissus spp.):
In mid-March through April, grape hyacinth and daffodils make their entrance. Grape hyacinth flowers form a pretty purple stalk. Plant grape hyacinth in groups or combination plantings with other spring bulbs such as early blooming tulips or daffodils.
A key highlight of daffodils is their deer/pest resistance. Daffodils contain an alkaloid that repulses deer. There are thousands of daffodil cultivars to choose from, ranging from traditional yellow to orange and white. Some are fragrant. Gardeners can expect their daffodils to bloom from mid-March to early April.
Tulips (Tulipa hybrids) & Allium (Allium hybrids):
Tulips are among the most common bulbs, and a favorite among gardeners. Be warned: deer love tulips as much as we do! Deterrent strategies include planting beside your home (an area where the deer may avoid), spraying deer repellent, or caging/fencing. The planning is well worth the colorful blooms that will greet you come mid-March through the end of May. Plant a mix of early and late-blooming cultivars to enjoy tulips all spring.
Alliums provide a purple-ish to pink firework of color from May through July. They are a fan-favorite of several pollinators and boast deer resistance. This ornamental version of the onion plant boasts blooms up to the size of a softball. These do nicely for cut flowers or to enjoy from the comfort of your porch. Alliums can grow taller than other bulbs in this list (some over 4 feet!),but you may choose smaller cultivars that range around 2-3 feet tall, like Allium sphaerocephalon or Purple Sensation.
Planting spring-flowering bulbs now is a way to invest in your spring 2024 garden ahead of time. Grab your trowel and start planting!
Written By "Greenhouse Grace" Grace Bradley