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Bulbs – an exercise in delayed gratification from the Whistling Gardener

We want our computers to process stuff faster and faster and we want our food delivered sooner and generally we are all running out of patience when it comes to waiting for things to happen. I hate to say it but it is no different in the gardening world, especially when it comes to bulbs.
Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Photo credit: Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

What a busy time we live in. Everyone wants things done instantly. We want our computers to process stuff faster and faster and we want our food delivered sooner and generally we are all running out of patience when it comes to waiting for things to happen. I hate to say it but it is no different in the gardening world, especially when it comes to bulbs.

Bulbs are truly an exercise in delayed gratification. My mother, God rest her soul, would even say they “built character” but then in Mom’s world anything that caused pain and suffering built character.

Bulbs don’t start growing instantly and they certainly don’t bloom instantly (except perhaps for fall blooming crocus aka. Colchicum) and in fact they really don’t do anything instantly. You have to be a patient gardener if you are going to embrace the concept of planting bulbs. It could be 3-7 months before you see the long awaited flower that you got so excited about way back in the fall of the previous year (assuming you even remember what it looked like or where on earth you planted it in the garden).

It seems to take forever to get our money’s worth from bulbs. And yet, when they do finally start emerging from the cold damp ground and produce a flower it is a glorious experience and we quickly forget how long we had to wait for this blessed event.

This is the consummate time of the year to plant spring blooming bulbs such as tulips and daffodils, crocus, hyacinth, alliums and a whole host of what we in the industry call “minor bulbs” which are all those little tiny guys that can be planted in drifts in rockeries or along the edge of beds and under trees where they quite happily naturalize and multiply over the years without any further interference from us.

Planting any kind of bulb does not need to be a complicated arduous task. It can literally be as simple as “Dig, Drop, Done” (which is actually a marketing theme for the bulb industry and one that you can Google and learn more about). Here are few of my tips on planting bulbs.

First off, plant in clumps or drifts, nothing looks dumber than a row of soldiers spaced out one foot apart along the edge of the garden bed.

Second, rarely do I plant a bulb one at a time. If I have a package of a dozen or so tulips I will dig a hole big enough to dump them all in together. It’s a whole lot faster and will look more naturalistic when they come up and bloom.

Third, planting depth is generally 3 times the diameter of the bulb. For most tulips, daffodils and hyacinth I will dig a whole 4-6 inches deep max, any deeper and in our heavy clay soils they may rot over the winter. For little minor bulbs 1-2 inches is plenty deep.

Fourth, don’t stress out over which end is up, the bulbs will figure it out. If you have the time and want to point all their noses up toward the sky then go for it but in the end it won’t make a difference. If you are not sure which end is up then plant them sideways.

Fifth, while bulbs contain everything they need to produce a bloom they will always look better and bigger if you throw in some organic food at the time of planting. Bone meal has always been the traditional amendment to use.

Sixth, while bulbs are perennials and can potentially live for many years it is okay to treat them as annuals (especially tulips) and throw the darn things away after they bloom. Sometimes we just need to think of our bulbs as cut flowers with roots and forget that we had to wait for 6 months for them to bloom.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at info@sunnysidenursery.net

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