To enjoy flowering spring bulbs, prepare now

The thought of flowering bulbs conjures up in my mind beds of tulips coming through the crusty snow (where I’m from) on a spring day shouting, “Spring is coming!” These welcome sights can be yours, as the foliage emerges from the soil by following these guidelines.

■ Selection: People think bulbs are “ugly,” but this ugliness is only skin deep. Rub the flaky skin off daffodil bulbs and they look like double-nosed onions. Then there’s the ranunculus, with its shriveled prongs pointing in all directions; there’s nothing pretty about them until they bloom. Bury those ugly bulbs in your garden this fall and they’ll turn even the brownest thumbs green when they bloom.

Slice a tulip bulb in half and you’ll see its potential flowers and leaves tucked within the embryo. It’s already determined how many flowers your bulb will produce. There is nothing you can do but succeed.

Select fairly large, firm bulbs of uniform size to get constant-size blooms. The more you buy of one kind, the prettier your display will be.

■ Refrigeration: Our warm climate creates problems with tulips and hyacinths. We have to refrigerate them to get those long-stemmed tulips, otherwise the blooms remain down in the foliage. Place them in a paper sack and store in your refrigerator vegetable crisper for four to six weeks for some artificial refrigeration to get those long stems.

■ Planting: Growing bulbs successfully here depends on your soil. Prepare your beds by mixing plenty of organic matter and bone meal into your soil. Make sure your soil drains or bulbs will die of rot.

Outside temperatures are cooling down, so it’s the right time to plant bulbs. Planting too early causes bulbs to initiate foliage growth and your expected show never materializes.

Plant your bulbs according to a chart your nursery gives you for the asking. Planting bulbs too shallow or too deep leads to undesirable results, so be precise. Plant them along borders, sidewalks, or in clusters where they’ll show off the most.

Just a tip: After planting your bulbs, plant pansies or violas over your beds to color the bare soil until your bulbs emerge. Or mulch over the area to keep the soil cool.

■ Storing bulbs through the summer: Never cut the foliage from your bulbs until they die down. The foliage is still manufacturing food for your new bullets. When they do die down, pull the tops out and fill the holes to keep sow bugs from getting to the bulbs. Cover your beds with mulch to keep the bulbs cool through the summer. Expect your stored bulbs to produce flowers for a few years with proper feeding and watering. However, you’ll get prettier blooms by planting new bulbs every year.

■ Watering: Our warm winters require watering through the winter. Occasionally dig down to test the soil for moisture. Never let your beds dry out but then again, don’t overwater. Overwatering is the biggest reason we lose bulbs through the summer, because of root rot.

■ Cultivation: After planting bulbs, avoid hoeing the beds by pulling up the weeds. Heavy mulching will help solve the weeding issue.

■ Feeding oversummer bulbs: Fertilize the beds in September and in October. Use a soluble fertilizer for the best results and then deep irrigate to move nutrients to the bulbs. When foliage begins emerging next fall, feed them every two weeks.

■ Bugs: Watch for aphids and cutworms. Use insecticidal soap to control them. Spray early in the morning for best controls.

■ How bulbs grow: I’m fascinated with how bulbs grow. They are so dependent on one set of conditions before other conditions take place.

All bulbs (bulbs, rhizomes, corms and tuberous roots) have similar life cycles; periods of growth and flowering following summer dormancy.

When planted in their dormant states, all bulbs quickly initiate roots, and stems. As soils warm, plants use their food reserves to push up shoots. When flowers come along, the storage organs have exhausted their food supply.

After flowering, the plant’s foliage accumulates new food reserves to store in the bulbs, vital for your bulbs’ continued well-being. So don’t remove the unsightly foliage before it has finished refueling your plant’s energy reservoir. At this point, the embryo (bulb) completes its development, and dormancy sets in. The bulbs’ internal food reserve now sustains them until next season.

Linn Mills writes a garden column each Sunday. You can reach him at or call him at 702-526-1495.