The Green Scene column in Saturday's Real Estate section should have said that soil temperatures must get down to 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit before spring-flowering bulbs can put down roots. Local soil temperatures are not yet cold enough, but it's all right to plant the bulbs now. (Published 11/02/1999)
If you waited until now to install spring-flowering bulbs, your patience is admirable--or maybe you were just too busy. Whatever the reason, you were right to wait until temperatures dropped into the autumn range, though bulbs planted slightly earlier should be fine.
For those who didn't jump at the first hint of bulb weather, there's still time to buy bulbs: Garden centers are stocked and you also can buy them by mail order.
Spring-flowering bulbs can be planted until Thanksgiving or later, weather permitting. A soil temperature that ranges well above 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit is required for many bulbs to begin growing roots.
True bulbs consist of a leaf or flower bud encased in food-storage layers called scales. But I use the term "bulb" generically, as many horticulturists do, to refer to a variety of plants with specialized roots for storing food. Other thick- or fleshy-rooted plants are corms, rhizomes and tubers, depending on their exact physiology. But they all should be planted now.
You can plant bulbs in forests, fields and flower beds, as long as they'll receive six hours a day of sun. Remember, trees overhead won't rob sunlight from early bulbs if the trees don't fully leaf out before the flowered bulbs "season," which means that their leaves turn brown or yellow and the plant has produced and stored enough food for the next year.
You can also plant bulbs in containers, as long as you keep the containers in a garage or other enclosure until mid-March.
The earliest spring-flowering bulbs emerge through the snow, such as snowdrops and glory-of-the-snow. Some can be planted in the lawn and will season in time to be cut down with the first mowing in spring, not to be seen again until the same time the next year. These include crocuses and early daffodils, such as the February-blooming "Rijnveld's Early Sensation."
If you're planting in a lawn, drop a handful of compost into each hole. Beyond that, only tulips don't produce enough food for themselves and need supplemental feeding. They like a balanced fertilizer, such as 9-9-6 Bulb Booster or equivalent material spread at a rate of two pounds per 100 square feet.
Or you can fertilize bulb beds naturally, by coating the soil surface with bone meal, cottonseed meal and hardwood ashes. Spread each one at a rate of 5 pounds to 10 pounds per 100 square feet; then dig it in with the compost you're adding to each hole. Bone meal and cottonseed meal can be found at local garden centers. Take wood ash from the fireplace.
A landscape design with bulbs is most effective when the bulbs are used in drifts or waves of the same color. Always buy multiples of eight to 10 or more of each variety; 100 is usually 10 times better.
There are specialized bulb-planting tools that push straight down into the soil and remove a plug at the proper depth. The Bulb Hound ($24.95) is an innovative and well-designed planter. It's built like a mini post-hole digger, with a heavy-duty steel jaw that punches the hole. There are other short- and long-handled bulb planters, but this is the only one with a jaw that opens to release the soil. It's available at hardware stores and garden centers, through Hound Dog Products Inc.'s World Wide Web site (www.hound-dog.com) or by phone at 1-800-694-6863.
You may prefer electric planting tools. There are variously sized augers that fit on a half-inch electric drill. They are sold at garden or home improvement centers. In case the auger hooks into a root, it will help if the drill has a reverse.
Use bulb size as a depth gauge: plant it about three times as deep as its height. Water when planting, but don't overwater--bulbs don't like wet feet.
All the well-known major spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, and many other minor ones, can be ordered locally or through companies that sell them as a specialty.
But here are some bulbs beyond the ordinary, available from Brent and Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Va. Brent and Becky Heath are third-generation bulb breeders and dealers who have a most informative Web site: www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com. Call 877-661-2852 to place an order or request a catalogue.
* Crocuses: These small early-blooming corms can be planted in mixed colors. I prefer grouping the same varieties together and like to use a hybrid that has a multicolored flower, such as Crocus crysanthus "Blue Pearl," with soft blue flowers and a bronzy-yellow base. Crocuses come in hues of purple, blue, yellow or white. They'll naturalize to come back for many years.
* Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa): The brilliant blue flowers appear around the same time as snowdrops and have six to 10 flowers on each plant. For best results, plant these true bulbs in full eastern sun with afternoon shade. Also a good lawn bulb.
* Snowdrops (Galanthus): These white-flowering bulbs will be the easiest to grow and fastest to naturalize. They will fill an area, even in your woodland garden.
* Crown Imperial (Fritillaria): The yellow, orange, white or checkered flowers from May into June are most unusual. The bulb is planted on its side at a depth of three times its width. They're repugnant enough to be a repellent to moles, voles, rabbits and other critters. Flowering stems can be up to three feet tall. Try an American native, Fritillaria affinis "Vancouver Island," which has burgundy-brown drooping bell-shaped flowers on 10- to 12-inch stems.
Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org