Don’t forget spring bulbs!

Now the winter veggie planting’s sorted, it’s time to think about spring bulbs. You still have a few more weeks to prepare, and in four months or so, your wintery garden will begin bursting with colour and fragrance from freesias, jonquils, ranunculus, hyacinths, gladioli. Maybe even tulips. In the dappled shade of deciduous trees you will find grape hyacinths, cyclamen, snowdrops.

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Late winter, Hill End

I’m talking about true bulbs, like daffodils, liliums, jonquils and snowflakes, as well as freesias and anemones (corms), and ranunculus (root tubers).

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Gorgeous colour palette of ranunculi, Oakey Creek

Most winter-spring flowering bulbs can be planted from mid-March through to mid-May. Tulips can be planted from around late May through to early June. In April, the soil in Mudgee is still quite warm, so I’ll be holding off for a few more weeks, while I get some new beds ready.

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Snowflakes, often called “snowdrops” in Australia

If you have a fridge in which you don’t keep fruit or vegetables, you can give bulbs a head start by cooling them in the crisper for a couple of weeks prior to planting. (Don’t keep them where they can be exposed to ethylene from ripening fruit & veg as this harms the bulbs.) This isn’t really needed in cold climates.

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Vivid red anemones

Tips for success with bulbs

Choose bulbs which are firm and full, not dry, lightweight or squashy.

If you’re unsure about planting depth, it’s pretty safe to plant bulbs about two to three times deep as they are wide. Exceptions include cyclamen, which grow near the surface, and Eucomis (Pineapple lily) which like to be planted with their necks just above the soil.

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Lovely Pineapple Lilies in my Mudgee garden

True bulbs are planted pointy end up. Ranunculi and anemone should be planted claws-down. If you’re unsure, plant them sideways and they’ll right themselves as they grow. Anemone bulbs do better if soaked in water for 3-4 hours before planting.

Prepare soil for new bulb plantings by removing weeds and sprinkling in a good bulb food (which should be high in potassium and phosphorus) and add compost to improve drainage. Fork the soil over to a crumbly texture and add some sand or grit to the bottom of the planting hole to improve drainage and prevent rotting.

You can also top dress bulbs that are already under ground. When first shoots appear, apply a slow release fertiliser such as blood and bone or cow manure.

Bulbs are spectacular planted in bold groups, naturalised drifts beneath deciduous trees or scattered among grass in the meadow garden. They can be used in herbaceous borders, threaded through perennials.

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Winter serenity at Oakey Creek

If planting bulbs in a lawn area, lift a square of turf and plant a group of bulbs rather than planting them individually.

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Nooroo, Mount Wilson

Growing several bulb varieties together means a longer overall flowering period.

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Bluebells and daffodils, Nooro

Growing bulbs in pots

Growing bulbs in pots is a great alternative if your soil isn’t well drained. Pots can be filled with bulbs, planted a little shallower than in the garden- about twice as deep as the size of the bulb- cheek to cheek, almost touching. Top with more soil and sprinkle with slow-release fertiliser.

You could plant larger bulbs such as daffodils in the bottom of the pot, and smaller bulbs such as grape hyacinths nearer to the top. Put the pots in a sunny position and keep them moist.

If you can’t wait until spring for your pot to look fantastic, you can plant something on top, such as pansies or violas.

When they finish flowering

Once bulbs have finished flowering, leave the withering foliage until it’s completely died back, about 6-8 weeks after flowering. During this period, the foliage is making the food and the energy to go back into the bulb ready for next year’s flowering. I apply a liquid feed at this time.

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Pink hyacinths

If bulbs are lifted at the end of their season, they can be stored in mesh bags, hung up in the shed until the next year (provided they won’t get too hot over summer). Left in the ground they can multiply with abandon to create the lovely naturalised woodland look as you can see at Nooroo. It’s important to ensure the bulbs don’t get too hot in the soil or the shed- extreme heat can sterilise bulbs.

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Saffron crocus

Some favourite bulbs

Hyacinths are beautiful planted in shallow bowls. Once you’ve planted your bowl, water well and then cover with a couple of sheets of newspaper. This deprives the bulbs of light, forcing really strong root development, so when the flowers do come, they’re less likely to flop over with their heavy weight.

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White hyacinth, Oakey Creek

Other less common but lovely bulbs include wild cyclamen and Crocus, which flower in winter and spring. They need sun for the flowers to fully open, but are still lovely planted under deciduous trees. Many will naturalise, spreading around without becoming weedy.

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Grape hyacinths do well in shaded spots

Here’s what I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for, come winter’s end…Are you planting bulbs?

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Garden Queen, I have a question for you. When I first moved into my home I planted swathes of daffodil bulbs and not one ever flowered. Someone told me that Blue Tongue lizards love to eat daffodil bulbs. Could that be the answer to where they went? Have you heard of this? Happy gardening, Mel

    1. My Dream Garden says:

      Haha, thanks for giving me that royal title Mel! I never expected such an honour. Yes many of us have sad stories about bulbs. I hadn’t heard about the lizards but I wouldn’t be surprised. Another possibility is they have rotted if they were planted in heavy clay. It’s very weird that you didn’t get anything at all given that you planted so many. My friend had a similar problem with daffodils in one part of her garden- I think she has a theory so I’ll get back to you on that if I can. I’m assuming that you didn’t get any growth at all- ie, no leaves coming up. If you get leaves but no flowers, it’s likely that the bulbs have been sterilised by overheating. Try again! Bulbs are too lovely to give up on!

      1. Definitely not clay here. Rock is more like it! Gardening is definitely an exercise in perseverance!

  2. tonytomeo says:

    We are at the other end of that right now, with the finished bulb foliage dying back right about now. In our landscapes, we can just let the daffodils lay down and dry up. We do not grow many bulbs here because winter is so mild.

    1. My Dream Garden says:

      Tony, to me, bulbs are one of the delights of a cool climate. I actually struggle with bulbs- I think my soil is all wrong, and I don’t have much sun in my garden as it’s designed more for our hot summers. I’m unbelievably envious when I see some people’s gardens bursting with bulbs in spring time.

      1. tonytomeo says:

        Yes! climates with cooler winters do so well with bulbs. We can grow some here, but we don’t, primarily because they bloom only once, but do not naturalize. They are like very expensive, but very short term, annuals.

  3. I’m going to try my luck in my subtropical garden, as I’ve been gifted some tulip bulbs. I wonder how they’ll go.

    1. My Dream Garden says:

      It would probably help in your climate if you could chill the bulbs for a few weeks before planting. Or at least store them in a cool place. Also, planting them in a free draining spot would be good if you get a lot of rain over winter.

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