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Growing Spring Bulbs

Nothing heralds the arrival of spring earlier than flowering spring bulbs. These perennial flowers bring beauty, fragrance, and color wherever they’re planted. With proper planning and minimal care, these perennials are sure to come back every year with bursts of fragrance and color.

“Spring bulb” is a loose term that describes a group of perennial flowering plants that grow and spread from a system of specialized underground organs and bloom in early to mid-spring. Some of these attractive plants may not technically grow from bulbs, but instead grow from a specialized stem or root system. All spring bulbs, however, have similar requirements and are a delight to grow in many locations, whether it is indoors or out in the garden.

Popular Spring Bulbs

With all the spring bulb species and varieties available (and more cultivated every year), gardeners have a large selection of colors, textures, and sizes to choose from. All of these plants are versatile and compact, and most are delightfully fragrant. Try to plant varieties of all the plants listed below to enjoy stunning combinations that flower almost continuously until late spring.

Crocus: The first to bloom in early spring, popping up with tiny bursts of color from beneath the snow, is the dainty crocus. Although often referred to as bulbs, crocuses aren’t actually bulbs at all, but a type of specialized, swollen stem called a corm. Their fragrant blooms herald the end of winter and may even lure out the season’s first bees.

Hyacinth: Coming into bloom right after the crocus bulbs are the bright and colorful hyacinths. A member of the lily family, these are beautiful and fragrant spring flowering bulbs. There are many varieties of hyacinths, and colors include blues, purples, whites, and even yellows. Make sure to plant these bulbs near walkways to take full advantage of their sweet fragrance.

Grape Hyacinth: These spring bulbs bloom at the same time and closely resemble the garden hyacinth, though they aren’t actually related. They are, however, just as popular. The blooms of these attractive bulbs are clusters of flowers that resemble a bunch of small grapes, hence the name. When planted closely together in a mass planting, grape hyacinths make a fragrant and stunning display in early spring.

Narcissus: From the elegant paperwhites to the cheery joplins and the showy daffodils, narcissus bulbs are wonderful additions to the garden, adding beauty and fragrance from early to mid-spring. All narcissus species and cultivars are hardy bulbs that start showing off in March, just as the hyacinths begin to fade, and they may bloom continuously until the emergence of tulips in mid-spring. A distinctive sign of warm weather to come, narcissus are garden favorites around the world. Their distinctive blooms, ranging from pure white to deep gold and orange, are equally attractive when planted as borders, in large masses, or even left to naturalize in a hilly meadow.

Warning: All narcissus bulbs contain calcium oxalate, an irritant that can cause rashes, as well as a more serious alkaloid poison called lycorine. While this means that most pests leave these bulbs alone, it also means that they should be handled carefully. Poisonings from this plant are not usually fatal in humans, but be sure to keep narcissus bulbs away from children and pets. If you suspect ingestion of any narcissus plant part, especially the bulb, call the National Poison Control Center: 1-800-222-1222.

Tulip: Coming into bloom shortly after the daffodils are the widely popular tulips. These mid-spring show-offs are some of the easiest flowering plants to grow, as they thrive in a wide variety of climates. They come in stunning colors, patterns, sizes, and shapes, from pure white to almost black and everywhere in between. Many of these showy flowers are also fragrant. Originally native to Turkey, the beautiful tulip has been in cultivation for hundreds of years and continues to capture the admiration of gardeners worldwide.

Benefits

  • Easy to Plant and Grow: All spring bulbs, when planted in the correct environment, are incredibly easy to grow, and many even spread and naturalize on their own. These attractive perennials are the perfect choice for gardeners who want color and beauty without the need to put in extra time or effort.
  • Early Season Blooms: Spring bulbs like the crocus and hyacinths are among the first flowers in spring, blooming even before the snow begins to melt. That first burst of color after months of winter’s dull greys is a benefit all its own.
  • Versatility: Early flowering bulbs are compact and hardy perennials that can be planted in many areas of the garden, and they can even bloom when kept indoors. Their small growth habits also allow them to squeeze tightly together and in small or difficult areas. These flowers perform well when planted around later-blooming plants, such as roses and penstemon, which hide the bulbs’ fading leaves with their own foliage and flowers.
  • Pest Control: The toxins in narcissus bulbs act as strong deterrents to rodents such as gophers and rabbits. The bulbs’ strong tastes and scent often encourage these stubborn critters to look elsewhere for food, potentially leaving other, more delectable plants planted close by unscathed.

Growing Spring Bulbs in the Garden

Spring bulbs are attractive additions to the garden that bring rewards for very little investment. Like every plant, however, the best results come from a bit of planning, preparation, and general care throughout the year.

Planning

In general, all spring bulbs require slightly acidic soil that has good drainage. These flowering perennials also require plenty of bright spring sunlight. Luckily, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your spring bulbs need to be planted only out in the open. Most trees and shrubs don’t leaf out until after the narcissus bulbs finish flowering, and many gardeners take advantage of this, planting bulbs for a flash of color in areas that become shaded later in the year. When deciding on planting spring bulbs, remember to plan around showing off these beautiful flowering plants to their best advantage. Also consider staggering different spring bulbs in order to enjoy their fragrant blooms for months, starting as early as February.

If it’s too late to plant spring bulbs in your area, or if you have extra bulbs on hand, you can also always force them into bloom for a touch of spring in your home during the winter.

Care

Spring bulbs require little in the way of routine care. Tough and versatile, these perennials are almost sure to bloom their first spring, as long as they were planted correctly. After the first year, some care is required to ensure blooms every year.

In general, all spring bulbs benefit from an annual feeding after flowering to replenish their reserves for blooming the following year. These special perennials also need to photosynthesize long enough after flowering to build up stores of energy to last them through the winter. Even if their leaves become a bit scraggly, it’s best to resist the urge to cut them back and instead allow the foliage of spring bulbs to die back on their own.

Forcing: Growing Spring Bulbs Indoors

For colorful fragrant beauty inside during the dull, cold winter, consider growing some of your spring bulbs indoors to make them flower out of season. This technique, called forcing, is simple, easy, and a wonderful way to brighten the home.

The majority of spring bulbs, including crocus, hyacinths, narcissus, and tulips, can be forced into bloom. They can be forced in a pot with soil, and most can even be forced in water. Tulips don’t usually perform well in water, but I have forced tulips this way, in a shallow pan filled with water and crushed gravel, and gotten beautiful results.

How to Force Bulbs

Forcing is a fun project that requires little effort, and the results are well worth it. When blooming in an attractive container, forced spring bulbs also make wonderful gifts. Just follow the guidelines below, and give it a try:

  1. In order to flower, bulbs must be given at least twelve weeks of cold temperatures between 35° and 50°F. To chill the bulbs, place them in an outdoor pit when temperatures drop, in an unheated garage, or keep them in the fridge.
  2. When the chill time is over, plant the bulbs in the medium of your choice and place them in a cool, bright location inside, away from direct sun.
  3. Keep the soil moist or containers filled with water, and enjoy the sight and smell of the emerging flowers. Keeping the bulbs cool will prolong the flowering period.
  4. Forced bulbs are often completely spent when they are finished flowering, and they may not flower again. Many gardeners discard the bulbs after forcing. If you continue to water the bulbs after flowering, however, and plant them outside in spring, they may come back the following year.

For more detailed instructions, take a look at this useful handout on forcing spring bulbs from the University of Montana.

For a touch of fragrant beauty inside the home or out in the garden, spring bulbs are the ideal choice. They are long-lived, dependable plants that give gardeners a huge return for only a little initial investment and minimal upkeep. Spring bulbs such as crocus, hyacinths, daffodils, and tulips can be staggered for a continuous bloom from February through May, planted as a pest deterrent around vegetable bed perimeters, and even forced indoors for spring color in the middle of winter. Try to plant a few of your own and enjoy the benefits that have made these plants so widely popular.

References:

https://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/scenece4b.html

https://www.hort.purdue.edu/ext/HO-11.pdf

https://www.seedsofchange.com/enewsletter/issue_55/companion_planting.aspx

https://urbanext.illinois.edu/bulbs/planting.cfm

https://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/dg1116.html

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