There are certain things in life that one should never buy on sale, with the most obvious examples being fresh fish (excuse the oxymoron), a haircut (unless you like the circa 1965 Ringo Starr look) and any four-wheel drive truck with oversized wheels and a well-used roll bar.
Spring bulbs on the other hand, or at least those that are still left at your local garden centre, are good value and often go on sale at this time of year.
Among these, there are a select few that naturalize well and, when given optimal growing conditions, will continue to flower for many springs to come and even multiply – thus providing interest on your original investment.
So let’s start by defining those ideal growing conditions: good drainage is essential for all bulbs, as they tend to just rot out during our wet winters.
For those of you stuck with high water tables, you can always grow your tulips and daffodils in containers, provided they have adequate drain holes.
Spring bulbs should be planted in beds with at least four to six hours of sun in spring, as those planted in shade have very little chance of re-blooming the following year.
Once your bulbs have finished flowering, you are going to have to let the leaves turn yellow before cutting them down – as this is the time when the plant feeds the bulb for the following season.
Tying your daffodil foliage into tidy knots is also not a great idea, as this reduces the sun exposure on the leaf surface and ends up starving the bulbs.
They should be planted in the fall and up to mid-November (don’t wait until the following spring), as they need some time to root in before the ground freezes.
For permanent plantings, always sprinkle bone meal on the bottom of the planting hole in order to provide phosphorus for that initial root development. You need to be careful not to leave any bone meal on the soil surface, as this will only attract raccoons, which will dig the bulbs up thinking that they are food.
Sandy or neglected soils should be rejuvenated with compost or Sea Soil (to a depth of six to eight inches) before planting.
Also, be sure to space your bulbs as per package directions, as this provides much needed room later when the bulbs multiply and prevents over-crowding. Planting deep (about eight inches down for tulips) also seems to help bulbs repeat-bloom and multiply.
Now, as to which bulbs naturalize the best we can start with the minor types, such as allium (flowering onion), crocus (including Dutch, species and snow crocus), muscari (grape hyacinth), iris (I. reticulata and danfordiae), chionodoxa (glory-of-the-snow), snowdrops (galanthus) and the squills (scilla and puschkinia), which all work well.
Daffodils (narcissus) are also a good choice, although the larger trumpet-types tend to fall prey to narcissus bulb fly over time. I find that the smaller rockery hybrids seem to endure the best, with ‘tete a tete’, ‘Jack snipe’ and ‘February gold’ being a few good choices.
Also, the small-cupped ‘actaea’, ‘Barrett browning’ and ‘pheasant’s eye’ (narcissus poeticus var recurvus) are also strong repeat bloomers. Those tulips closer to species (T. greigii, T. kaufmanniana, T. fosteriana and botanical) tend to work the best, although some Darwin hybrids (‘apeldoorn’, ‘Oxford’), lily-flowered types (‘red shine’, ‘Aladdin’), as well as ‘Princess Irene’ (single early), ‘Don Quichotte’ (triumph) and ‘burgundy lace’ (fringed) are also good performers.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (firstname.lastname@example.org).