The Well-Dressed Garden

A Sure Investment: Flower Bulbs

It's never too soon to think about spring. On bright fall days, let the clear sky and golden colors of the harvest season inspire you to plan ahead for a glorious spring. All you need to bring it off is a few dozen flower bulbs.

Daffodil, tulip, crocus and other bulbs that bloom in spring should be planted in the fall. Finding places for them in the garden is easy, and planting them is not a chore. It's a pleasant season to be out in the garden after the heat of summer abates. Working by yourself -- or, even better, with a friend -- you can plant hundreds of bulbs in less than an hour. An investment in bulbs this fall is a fail-safe bet for a colorful spring.

Start your bulb investment with a few handfuls of crocus bulbs. They're about the size of a pearl onion, and you can plant a dozen of them in a hole only 4 inches deep and 2 or 3 inches across. Toss the bulbs in the hole, cover them with soil, and tamp the soil back down with your foot. If you suspect mischievous squirrels might dig up the bulbs, place a brick or two on top of the soil -- just remember to remove it after a couple of weeks, so the bulbs can come up in the spring.

Crocus and other tiny but delightful bulbs look pretty along a path, where you're sure to see them when they bloom. You can tuck a few of these little charmers in near a garden bench or plant them around the edge of a patio, where they will tempt you out into the garden in early spring. These small flowers make a surprisingly bright and cheerful display, even from the street.

The earliest spring bulbs are followed by the magnificent daffodils, bold and hardy flowers unafraid of the lingering chill in the air. Daffodils grow from crinkly bulbs about as big as your fist. Most varieties produce just one showy flower per bulb, but jonquilla types, which are often fragrant, produce up to six smaller blooms from every bulb.

If you're familiar only with yellow daffodils, now is the time to experiment with something new -- those well-known golden trumpets are just the beginning. Snow-white daffodils are sleek and stylish; flowers with bright orange cups and yellow petals seem to positively glow. Double daffodils, which have frilly centers instead of traditional trumpets, will put you in mind of roses or camellias. There are hundreds of choices on the glossy pages and stunning websites of mail-order bulb specialists. Garden shops will have bins of daffodil bulbs stacked in the aisles beginning around Labor Day.

Daffodil bulbs are larger and should be planted deeper than the little bulbs -- 6 to 8 inches deep. It is easier to plant them with a spade than with a trowel, and it's more fun to plant them with a friend. One person lifts the soil with the spade, and the other shoves the bulbs in the ground. If you're planting by yourself, you can use the same method -- it will just be a little more time well spent.

Plant daffodils under trees (they will bloom before the trees leaf out) or among shrubs and perennials in a mixed flower bed. They make a good impression in a mailbox garden out by the curb, and they're friendly and inviting along a path or a front walk. Daffodils will come back year after year -- and with more blooms -- if they are planted in a spot that does not receive much summer watering.

Just before the daffodils finish blooming, the tulip season begins. These flashy flowers, each elegant bloom about the size of a teacup, stand tall on graceful stems. Tulips may look like precious jewels, but they're decidedly affordable: for $30 or $40, you can buy 100 bulbs, which, when they come into bloom, is enough to knock your wooly socks off. It's hard to go wrong with tulips. Look for colors you like, or buy a mixture and plant them together. Most bulb specialists offer pre-selected mixes of tulips designed to bloom together all at once for a glorious display, or over a period of weeks in a show that develops over time.

Tulips are at their best in clusters of five or more bulbs. A display of 100 planted together in one area, such as near the front door or at the end of the front walk, will stop traffic. On the other hand, single bulbs planted here and there throughout a flower bed have the charm of wildflowers. They're also gorgeous in groups in flowerpots. If you live in a mild-winter climate, where a pot can spend the winter outdoors without frost damage, try planting 25 tulip bulbs in a big pot. In colder climates, tulip bulbs in a pot can be buried in a pile of autumn leaves all winter and then brought into the light in spring.

From the first tiny crocus blooms to the last gorgeous tulips, the spring flower bulb season lasts for months. It only takes one morning in the garden in the fall to set yourself up for an unforgettable show of spring blooms. You won't see the results of your work immediately, but an autumn morning in the garden is its own reward -- and then when spring comes, you can give yourself plenty of credit for thinking ahead.

Sources

Garden shops stock up with spring bulbs of every description in the fall, offering dozens of varieties of tulips, daffodils and crocuses. For the biggest selection, shop online. These bulb specialists offer terrific variety and top-quality bulbs at great prices:

-- Brent and Becky's is well known for daffodils of all kinds, but also for a great selection of tulips and other spring bulbs: brentandbeckysbulbs.com.

-- If you're looking for tulips in a wide assortment of combinations, turn to Colorblends. The company offers dozens of sure-fire tulip blends, many other spring bulbs, and high-quality planting tools: colorblends.com.

-- John Scheepers is another excellent source of spring bulbs of every description: johnscheepers.com.

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