Even though fall won't arrive for another week, there are signs of autumn all around. No matter where you shop, you encounter heavy-budded chrysanthemums hinting at the autumnal equinox. Some mums will be unfolding their blossoms next week somewhat before their time. And you stumble upon ornamental cabbage and kale, evidence that bedding plants will be leveled by frost soon enough.
Holland bulb displays have shot up everywhere in the past week, signaling a plentiful supply of quality bulbs and corms to be planted for spring and early summer flowers. If you're able to raid the budget, you could create a continuing display of flowers from late winter on. However, if you plant haphazardly, you're better off not planting at all. Instead, you'll enjoy the tulips in front of museums on the Mall.
To begin, here is the usual Baltimore-Washington flowering sequence of spring bulbs:
Feb. 15-March 25: Snowdrop, winter aconite, anemone, dwarf iris, crocus, striped squill, trumpet and large-cupped daffodil, scilla and spring snowflake.
March 25-April 30: Single early tulip, double early tulip, Triumph tulip, mid-season Mendel tulip, Darwin tulip, Parrot tulip, glory-of-the-snow, small-cupped and double daffodil, grape hyacinth, fritillaria and summer snowflake.
May: Cottage tulip, Dutch breeders tulip, English breeders tulip, Broken Dutch tulip, Rembrandt tulip and hyacinth.
Late May-early June: Star of Bethlehem and Spanish bluebell.
June-July: Broken Cottage daffodil, Parrot daffodil, late double daffodil, then Dutch iris as June gives way to July.
Other planting hints to keep in mind:
The best border plant up front is crocus, yielding four- to five-inch flowers as February gives way to March. Plant bulbs three inches deep. Also consider snowdrops, which yield white flowers on six-inch-tall stalks in February. Snowdrop bulbs are best planted the last week of September, six inches deep in sandy soil, but four inches deep in clay soil. If you have a shady spot where you want a spectacle in late February, plant two dozen snowdrops in a clump and brace yourself for winter grandeur.
Grape hyacinth bulbs, planted three to four inches deep, yield mid-April flowers on stalks six to eight inches tall.
Daffodils (narcissus) are planted six to eight inches deep, yielding March and early April flowers on stalks up to 20 inches tall.
Tulip bulbs are set four to six inches deep in the soil, and blossoms are borne on 30-to-36-inch stalks.
Star of Bethlehem yields white or silvery gray flowers in late May and early June on stalks eight to 18 inches tall. Plant bulbs three inches deep and four inches apart.
Of course, most readers have planted spring bulbs before, but probably with mediocre success. So why try again when you've just about lost your confidence?
Having faced the same dilemma many times over the past three-plus decades, let us share some hindsight so you profit from our mistakes and achieve a spectacular flower display next spring.
Settle on one massive display, but do it so it takes your breath away. Settle on one variety of spring bulb, be it crocus, hyacinth or tulip. If funds are low, buy two or three dozen crocus, then create a lavish display around one of the most visible shrubs in front of your home or town house.
With crocus, the flowers will be gone by mid-March, so nothing will detract from the shrub bordered by the crocus. If you elect to plant tulips, remember that they flower in April or May, but the stalks will survive to the last days of June.
If you narrow your choices to Darwin and Triumph tulips, which will flower shortly after March 30, the April garden will be spectacular. In the first days of May, you will want to set out starter plants for medium height annuals (bachelor button, calliopsis, strawflower, mignonette, pincushion flower) to camouflage tulip stalks.
There is no room for rainbows in spring bulb gardens. Instead, settle on one color for each variety, thereby focusing all attention on the one colorthroughout the gigantic display. Imagine the sight of 12 dozen tulip bulbs flowering in front of your house.
Quality tulip bulbs will last two decades and longer, but bargain bulbs will flower poorly next year.
If you are about to work a miracle, let everyone see it. However, don't plant where you grew spring bulbs in recent years. You don't want any other bulbs flowering in the garden where you are trying to engineer a show.
Find the perennial eyesore in the garden, in full sun, of course, and transform it. Take square-foot measurements so you're able to calculate the precise number of bulbs required, assuming you space them eight inches apart, row to row.
Start planning now even though you have until late November to get tulip bulbs in the ground. Use your electronic pH soil tester and apply ground limestone immediately to raise the pH to the 6.5 to 7 range.
When you buy bulbs, make certain to get explicit planting instructions (how deep bulbs should be planted, what spacing down the row should be). Always measure from the base of the bulb when you plant. Bulb starter should be incorporated into the soil at planting time.
If the soil is hardpan, consider tilling it to break up the clay and aerate the soil. Tilling before October rains is recommended, and limestone can be applied according to the results of your soil test.
Eastern Shore gardens with sandy-loam soil would benefit from tilling in as many bushels of leaves as possible in November, with bulbs planted by Thanksgiving.
With small displays, use a bulb planter from the garden shop. Organize things so it pours the day before you plant bulbs, otherwise you may quit after planting the first half-dozen bulbs.
With large displays, individual bulb planting is out of the question. Use a shovel to open the earth, be in trenches or whatever, to the prescribed depth. Again, digging is easy after a day of rain. Plan on digging over a week or more, piling up soil on one side of the area. Bulbs are then placed in the hole, starter fertilizer added, then soil returned to the site.
Fertilizer must be applied to the bed, preferably worked into the top few inches of soil after the bulbs are planted. Without a soil test, apply two pounds of 5-10-10 or 10-10-10 for every 100 square feet of bulb garden. If you use an empty 12-ounce coffee can, fill it three-fourths with fertilizer and you have two pounds.
Dedicated gardeners may want to create an additional bulb fertilizer. Start with a five-gallon plastic bucket, adding five pounds of dry 0-10-0 bone meal and stirring in three tablespoons of powdered Benomyl. Stir in eight tablespoons of dry commercial bulb starter, then slowly add a small amount of lukewarm water as you stir the ingredients. At the first sign of the ingredients starting to dissolve, add eight ounces of fish emulsion. You're trying for a mixture that resembles "waffle batter" so ingredients stay homogenized and do not separate.
Place one tablespoon of the batter at the base of the hole when you plant, then place the bulb on top of the mixture. Stir the solution between bulb plantings.
If you or neighbors have consistently had bulbs destroyed by rodents over the winter, lay in a small supply of chicken wire fencing (minimum size holes) from the building supply or hardware store. After tulips are planted, roll out the fencing atop the bulb garden, cutting it as needed to protect the area. Scatter stones randomly over the fencing to hold it in place over the winter, removing and storing the fencing once tulips break through the soil come spring. Then, apply pine bark nuggets to the tulip bed to choke off weed seeds preparing to sprout.
If you had a bulb garden of doubtful performance last spring, don't try to improve on it now because it will be an ignominious garden next spring. Best to leave things intact for now and sort out the bulbs by color, labeling each stalk at flowering time. When the stalks die back next June, you can spade identical color bulbs from the soil and use them for container or window box displays.
Jack Eden is the host of "Over the Garden Fence" Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on WTOP Radio (1500 AM).