University of Illinois Extension

Spring Color Starts Now

For the home gardener, spring color starts with work done in the fall, said Greg Stack,
a University of Illinois Extension horticulturist.

“Okay. Summer is barely over, fall is starting to makes its presence known and spring is not even on the radar of most people,” admitted Stack. “But to gardeners, how we want the garden to look next spring starts with things we do this fall. And one of those things is early, spectacular color after the snows have started to melt. And bulbs help make that happen.”

Spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, crocus, hyacinth and a whole host of other lesser known but colorful cast members show up in garden centers in the fall, to reward you with color in the spring if you take time to bring a few home to plant.

“It is common to hear homeowners going to the garden center in the spring after having seen drifts of tulips in a landscape and wanting to plant some in their own yard,” he said.

“While greenhouse growers have accommodated them with pre-planted and forced pots of spring bulbs to add quick spots of color to the garden, the real gardener knows that now is the time to plan and plant for some welcoming early spring color.”

There are many choices when it comes to spring-flowering bulbs. The major players are tulips, daffodils and hyacinth followed by crocus, winter aconite, grape hyacinth, anemone and snowdrops.
No matter what type of bulb you choose, the one thing that is pretty standard is they all do better in a well prepared soil, said Stack.

Bulbs are pre-programmed to grow and rarely let a gardener down. Many have the potential to perennialize (come back each year). The biggest reason for failure is probably planting in poorly prepared and poorly drained soil.

“Prior to planting bulbs work in ample amounts of organic matter and make sure the site drains well,” he said. “Wet, winter soils shorten the useful life of bulbs. After working in organic matter add about one pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet or a handful of fertilizer for every 10-12 bulbs. This helps to encourage growth of the bulbs and is most evident the second year after planting.

“How deep to plant the bulb is often dictated by the size of the bulb. A general rule of thumb suggests planting so the depth of soil above the bulb is about two times the diameter of the bulb. For tulips and daffodils this translates to about four to six inches and for smaller bulbs about two inches.”

What are your choices in the way of bulbs? The answer is, almost limitless as there are so many unique types to choose from. When shopping for bulbs don’t overlook those that may seem a bit out of the mainstream. Many of these will not only give great spring color but also are great perennializers.
“Let’s look at a few of the better ones for long term garden performance,” Stack said.

In the tulip category consider greigii tulips. These tulips are eye catching not only for their flowers but also for their foliage that is mottled and streaked with deep maroon and purple strips. They are short in stature making them good for front of the border and small space gardens. They are also great perennializers.

“The kaufmanniana tulips have very short stems and large flowers often resembling water lilies. They are notable for their striking color combinations and multi-colored leaves that are ground hugging and wind resistant. They are very dependable perennializers and are used for permanent planting and are great in combination with early daffodils.”
And speaking of daffodils, he added, here is a class of spring flowering bulbs that has 13 different divisions. Twelve divisions are determined by the physical characteristics of the flower and genetic makeup of each cultivar and the thirteenth based solely by botanical name.

But if you aren’t worried whether you bought a daffodil, jonquil or narcissus and whether the trumpet or cup is bigger or smaller in relation to the size of the petals, then this class offers lots of interesting color, size, flower form and often fragrance,” he said.

Daffodils are perhaps the best buy in spring-flowering bulbs if you are looking to establish a bulb garden that will almost without doubt increase in size over time if given good growing conditions. Daffodils are great perennializers and it is just a matter of picking the flowers that appeal to your taste.
“The other thing to consider is bloom time,” he said. “You can select from early, mid-season or late-flowering that can help extend the bloom period longer through the spring.

“One thing that is often frustrating though is that those very early blooming types fall prey to the variable Midwest springs that can include late freezes that turn those early blooms to an unappetizing brown in very short order. But if you are willing to take the chance or have a protected spot in the garden try some of the early bloomers. The reward is worth it.”

When it comes to miscellaneous or minor bulbs there are many to choose from. These are usually smaller in stature. Often blooming very early, they are often used as under plantings for some of the larger bulbs. Gardeners can take advantage of the small stature and early flowering by using the lasagna planting technique out in the garden.

“Dig the planting site to a depth to accommodate the larger bulbs such as tulips or daffodils,” he said. “Put these bulbs in the bottom of the hole and cover with a layer of soil. Set in some of the minor bulbs such as grape hyacinth over the larger bulbs and cover with soil.

“These minor bulbs come up and provide a colorful under planting for the larger bulbs.”

For those gardeners with deer problems there is hope. There are bulbs that seem to not be preferred deer food and not normally eaten by deer, giving the gardener at least a chance of having some early spring color. These bulbs include the alliums, chinodoxa, crocus, dutch iris, eranthus, erythronium, galanthus, fritillaria, hyacinth, muscari, narcissi, oxalis, pushkinia and scilla.
“Your spring garden starts to take shape with fall planting,” said Stack. “Consider a few bulbs to welcome spring and herald the receding snow line.”