Archive for Sunday, October 3, 1999


October 3, 1999


Taking time to plant bulbs correctly now will offer visual and olfactory rewards in spring.

A flower bulb certainly must be one of Mother Nature's best ideas. Planted in the ground in the fall when gardeners typically have a bit more time, these homely masses of tissue hide for months.

They are easy to forget during the winter. Then, just about the time we find the dreary landscape of winter unbearable, they emerge to brighten the spring garden.

Bulbs are really underground flower factories with just about everything the plant needs to sprout. In the basal center portion of the bulb, the leaves cradle a baby bud. In many species, this bud already has the appearance of a flower.

Surrounding the bud are the scales, a white, meaty substance. These scales contain all the food the bulb will need to flower and thrive. Anchoring the scales and floral stalk which holds the bud is the basal plate. This plate also holds the roots of the plant. A thin outer skin called the tunic protects the entire package.

Many gardeners use the term "bulb" loosely. Technically speaking, several popular "bulbs" are actually corms, tubers or rhizomes.

The differences lie in the ways they store food. True bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, lilies and hyacinths, are surrounded by fleshy layers or scales fastened upon a fibrous base from which the roots are produced. They can live indefinitely as a single unit or they can multiply.

Corms, often confused as being true bulbs, are a solid mass of stored food with roots growing from the baseplate and with small buds on top. Good examples of corms are crocuses and gladioli. Unlike true bulbs that are long lived, corms die after a year of growth. A new corm, however, replaces the withered one by developing on top of or sometimes beneath or along side the old one.

Tubers are a round, food-storing part of the stem or root. Tubers that are modified from the stem have "eyes," such as potatoes. Those that are root tubers, such as dahlias and sweet potatoes, do not. In either case, tubers serve as food reservoirs until the plant establishes a new root system to take up nourishment.

Rhizomes are like tubers, that is, they are part of the stem tissue. Rhizomes tend to be long and sometimes form a "V." Canna lilies and irises are common tubers.

Right place, right time

All bulbs -- that is to say, true bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes -- must be planted at the correct depth to ensure healthy and vigorous plants.

Planting bulbs too deep causes them to use too much of their stored energy just to push through the soil. Little energy will then be reserved for flower production.

On the other hand, placing bulbs to shallowly will result in plants that have little stability in the ground.

Garden centers can instruct you to the proper planting depth. A rough guide for planting spring bulbs is to place them at a depth that is about three to five times their height. Rhizomes are the exception. They like to sit just below the soil surface. The space between plants should be about two or three bulb widths apart.

Shape and success

Although the shapes of the various "bulbs" differ, they have similarities. For one, the pointed end is usually the top. This is the end from which the plant stem and flower will emerge. The flattened part is the bottom, from which the roots grow, and should be placed down. Sometimes fine root hairs are visible along the flattened surface. If it is impossible to distinguish the top part of the bulb from the bottom, just plant them. They will grow toward the sun. Most bulbs do well in the sunny part of the garden. Keep in mind that many of them bloom before trees leaf out.

Tulip truelove

Arguably, one of the favorite bulbs for fall planting is the tulip. More than 100 species of tulip are available in a host of shapes, sizes and bloom times. The familiar cupped flower is the most easily recognized tulip shape. Goblet shaped, fringed, doubled flowered and star-shaped flowered are becoming more popular. In addition, some tulips produce clusters of flowers per stem rather than one flower. By carefully selecting different varieties of tulips, gardeners not only extend the bloom time from early spring to nearly summer, but also enhance the garden diversity.

Tulips are so easy to grow that even novice gardeners can get beautiful results -- at least the first year. Though tulips are perennials, some gardeners treat them as annuals because getting repeated blooming is not always reliable.

Tulip bulbs do best when planted in a well-drained area. This is good advice when planting any bulb. Wet soil promotes fungus and disease and may even rot the bulbs. Organic matter such as rotted cow manure, compost or peat moss helps promote drainage.

Tulip bulbs should be planted 8 inches deep, measuring from the base of the bulb. Include the depth of added surface mulch to the total, since the bulb must grow through the mulch to flower. Therefore, plant the tulip bulb five inches into the soil if you plan to add three inches of mulch.

Water the bulbs after planting. It is especially important to ensure that the plants develop a strong root system before going into winter dormancy. Fertilize them in the fall and again in the spring. Though healthy Dutch bulbs have more than enough food stored up to ensure a vigorous bloom the first season, a low nitrogen fertilizer is recommended if repeated blooming seasons are desired.

In the spring, after the blossoms have passed their peak, clip off the flower heads and allow the foliage to die back naturally. This technique allows the plant to put all its energy into building a strong bulb for the next season.

The more the merrier

Daffodils look nice when planted in clusters. Dig a wide hole about 6 to 9 inches deep and space the bulbs about 6 inches apart. Fill in with soil and then water. Cover with mulch to protect them during the winter.

When the desired effect is one that appears more natural, try a planting method called naturalizing. Gather a handful of daffodil bulbs and toss them in the general area you plan to grow them. Then, plant each bulb where it has landed.

Hyacinths can be planted more shallowly than tulips or daffodils. They are usually planted to a depth of 4 to 6 inches and about 3 inches apart. Because their stiff upright growing pattern may tend to give the garden a skimpy look if planted singly, hyacinths are best planted in quantity. Therefore, plant enough bulbs to fill the space. Unlike the other bulbs, hyacinths can tolerate a bit more shade.

Although hyacinths are hardy through Kansas winters, they are considered short-lived bulbs. Many gardeners dig them up each year to help them retain the bulb's vigor. Even so, they may stop producing flowers in about three years. Nonetheless, their fragrance is worth the effort.

Although bulbs can be planted until the ground freezes, September and October are the best months for planting spring flowering bulbs. So, find a few places in your garden to plant a few bulbs. The spring reward will be worth the effort you took this fall.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at

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