In the upper Great Lakes region, winters seem to drag on FOREVER. You yearn for just a little hint, any sign that spring is on the way. Don't dismay, you can bring some spring cheer to your garden months before you're able get out and tackle your annual plantings. Autumn is the season for planting spring-blooming bulbs. As you put the rest of your garden to bed, take some time to add some bulbs to your garden before the ground freezes. Then, before the snow is gone, you'll be gladdened to see their greenery poking through, and the early varieties blooming.

Bulbs 101

The word “bulb" can refer to many different varieties: corms, rhizomes, tuberous roots and hardy bulbs. Today we're going to address the hardy bulb, which requires a period of cold weather to end its dormancy. Hardy bulbs and corms (crocus) are bred to survive the freezing temperatures of the growing zones in this area. Included in this group are hyacinth, daffodil, tulip, allium, narcissus, anemone, crocus and lily.

Where to plant

Bulbs not only need cold weather to grow, they will need a lot of bright, sunny light to bloom in the spring. The most popular location for placing bulbs is in an established flowerbed. As the bulbs become a permanent part of your garden, you can supplement with other perennials and annuals for continual bloom after the spring flowers fade. Try adding some color to the shrubs along your home's foundation by planting groups of bulbs in between them. If you plant bulbs near your foundation's southern or western side, they'll be exposed to more warmth and bloom earlier than those planted elsewhere. You can also plant beneath trees, because most of the bulbs will be finished blooming before the tree is in full leaf. Try to avoid the tree's roots when planting. It is best not to plant in containers over the winter, because bulbs may freeze if the container is above the ground. Wherever you choose to situate your bulbs, a rich, well-drained soil is essential. Do not place your bulbs in areas where there is standing water, or they may rot. Adding organic material to the soil, such as peat moss, compost or leaf mulch will help amend your soil.

How and when to plant

Most bulbs should be in the ground by mid-October, but can be planted before the ground freezes. It's recommended to plant them as soon as you obtain them to ensure growth. If you can't get them planted right away, store them in a well-ventilated, dry place, out of the sun, until you can get to them.

Bulbs look best when they are planted in groups. Never plant your bulbs in a straight row. When deciding what to plant, choose bulbs that bloom in March and others that bloom from spring and in early- to mid-summer. Grouping different varieties together will extend your bloom time and add visual interest to your garden. The depth of planting and how you space them depends on the type of bulb. As a rule of thumb, most are planted 2 ½ times deeper than their diameter, and the larger the bulb, the deeper it should be planted. Always check the supplier's packaging to ensure proper planting depth.

Plant the lowest growing bulbs, such as crocus, anemone, and hyacinth toward the front of your grouping, the position the rest in order of height, assuring that the tallest ones are in back. Large globe alliums look stunning behind a bed of daffodil and grape hyacinth.

Trench planting

Once the location and type of bulbs are chosen, you're ready to plant. If you are grouping several types of bulbs in the same large area, dig a trench or crater to the depth of your largest bulb. Place your bulbs in the hole, pointed end up. You can plant the bulbs close together, but don't let them touch. Firmly press the bulb, making sure its flat end (base) is at the appropriate depth. You may wish to add a little bonemeal or bulb food at this point to add minerals to the soil. Next, fill in the trench with soil to the depth required for your next bulb, and plant them, again adding a little bone meal. Repeat the process until you reach the depth of your shallowest planting (some are as little as 3-4 inches deep) and fill in the trench to ground level. (Note: if you are planting bulbs that have different blooming times, it's OK to overlap a few of the bulbs planted at different depths. The earlier bloomers will be finished as the later ones start to emerge.) Thoroughly soak the area with water and add 3-5 inches of mulch (leaves, straw or grass clippings work well). If the weather remains very dry in the weeks after planting, additional watering may be required until the ground freezes hard.

Individual planting

Choose the sites you want to place your bulbs and dig a hole to the required depth with a shovel or trowel. Better yet, using a proper bulb planter will make quick work of digging with measuring marks to assure you are planting at the correct depth. For large-quantity planting, a Garden Weasel bulb planter minimizes stooping and its sharp blade cuts through the soil. Fertilize and mulch as mentioned for trench planting.

As the ground warms in the spring, carefully remove the mulch. Reapply the mulch if a hard frost threatens. Treat your bulbs as perennials. Leave them in the ground. If after a few years, they are starting to crowd each other, they may need to be divided. Tulips and hyacinth generally do not multiply each year, but daffodils and grape hyacinth (muscari) multiply freely. This process is known as “naturalization," and some packages will state “good for naturalizing". If you want to make a dramatic statement in an open woodland or low traffic area, a mixture of daffodil and muscari create a heavenly display. With any bulb, make sure the ones you plant are firm, discarding any soft or moldy stock.

What to plant?

Fleet Farm carries a large variety of spring bloomers, from early-blooming crocus and tulips, to show-stopping allium and exotic Fritillaria. You'll discover tulips in every shade of the rainbow, daffodil varieties by the dozen, fragrant hyacinth, and delicate anemone. If it's your first time planting bulbs, choose at least 3-4 varieties that bloom at varying times, and add to your assortment annually with new favorites. Rodents do not like daffodil bulbs, so if you have a problem with these critters, intersperse daffodils throughout your other bulbs.

Happy planting!