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In the garden: Spring-blooming bulbs brighten up the garden

Tulips are one of many types of spring-flowering bulbs that provide early-season color. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review)
Tulips are one of many types of spring-flowering bulbs that provide early-season color. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review)

As spring unfolds in my garden, I’m treated to dozens of delightful surprises in the form of spring-blooming bulbs. These flowers are my reward for making it through what has seemed like the longest winter of my life.

It’s easy to forget where these plants will appear due to the large numbers of perennials and shrubs that are visible for months at a time. Slowly but surely, the blossoms of crocuses, grape hyacinths, daffodils, narcissus, tulips and alliums will shout “hey, look at me!”

This parade of bright colors wouldn’t take place if I hadn’t given in to the bulb catalogs’ offerings over the years and poked these gems into my garden.

A few years ago, I began an urgent search for Muvota tulips after seeing them blooming in a display garden at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. The flowers are stunning with their deep-red petals bordered by bright orange. I finally located the bulbs at a local garden center last fall and triumphantly added them to a flower bed. So far, the bulbs’ leaves have emerged, and I’m anxiously awaiting a dazzling floral show.

If you’re feeling like the springtime colors in your garden are a bit lacking, study your flower beds over the next month to look for empty gaps. Before you forget where those spots are, mark them with a stake. Since bulb-planting season is in the fall, you’ll be ready to shop for bulbs as soon as they become available in garden centers and online.

Don’t worry about having a gap after the bulbs bloom next spring, however. Those that require deep planting – tulips, narcissus and daffodils, for example – can be over-planted with annuals after the danger of frost has passed. The annuals’ roots won’t interfere with the bulbs below.

Even if you only have a little room in your flower beds, there’s a bulb for every spot. In addition to the more common types, plenty of equally appealing smaller bulbs are available. Consider planting glory-of-the-snow, Siberian squill, Spanish bluebells, fritillaries and snowdrops; all are hardy for this region. Over time, the bulbs will multiply which creates a more natural look.

Spring-flowering bulbs don’t require much care while they’re growing. One area I have to admit being lax about is feeding my established bulbs on an annual basis. I tend to just let them do their own thing, without stopping to think about the energy they require to produce their knock-out blooms year after year.

A colleague of mine, Ed Hume, recommends feeding them with a liquid fertilizer – my favorite is diluted fish emulsion – when the new leaves are a few inches tall, and then again when the blooms are fading.

After bulbs have finished flowering, it’s tempting to yank up the foliage before it starts turning brown. However, that’s not a great idea because those leaves put energy into the bulbs for the following year’s bloom.

Fortunately, Hume has sage advice on this topic as well. He once told me that research has shown it’s safe to remove the leaves of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths 21 days after they bloom. He feels the leaves of other bulbs should be left in place for six to eight weeks – a worthwhile practice that can try the patience of tidy gardeners like myself.

No matter which types of bulbs catch your fancy, don’t forget to plant some spring-bloomers as your early-season reward next year.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of “Northwest Gardener’s Handbook.” Contact her at Susan@susansinthegarden.com.


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