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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004 11:53 am

Plan now for a splash of color

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One of my favorite gardening experiences is seeing yellow and purple crocuses peek through snow in March. Now is the time to select and plant spring bulbs if you want to enjoy a similar splash of color early next year.

Flowering bulbs are an important addition to any landscape or garden. The more bulbs of one variety and color that are planted together, the greater the visual impact will be. Plant small bulbs near walkways, where their flowers will not be missed.

Bulbs can be planted almost anywhere except under evergreens, such as pine trees, or in other heavy-shade areas. Sunlight is needed to trigger proper growth in the spring. Light is also needed for the period after flowering, when the foliage manufactures food to be stored in the bulb for the next year's growth cycle.

Because of the wide variation in blooming time of spring-flowering bulbs, these bulbs can be used to add color to the garden from February through June. Early-spring bulbs include the snowdrop, winter aconite, crocus, glory-of-the-snow, Siberian squill, and common grape hyacinth. Midspring-flowering bulbs include early tulips, hyacinths, and medium-cupped daffodils. Alliums, tulips, and daffodils end the season for hardy spring-flowering bulbs.

Select firm bulbs that have a protective papery skin and are free from soft or rotting spots, cuts, mold, or other signs of disease. Generally, the larger the bulb is, the bigger the flower will be.

Early October is the best time to plant spring bulbs. If you cannot plant them immediately, store them in a dry, cool (50°F to 60°F) place away from direct sunlight. Bulbs may be planted until the soil freezes.

Select a garden location with rich, well-drained soil. If the soil has a high clay content, incorporate an organic material such as compost or shredded leaves into the top 12 inches of soil.

The rule of thumb for planting spring bulbs is to plant two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall: Most large bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, should be planted six to eight inches deep, but smaller bulbs can be planted three or four inches deep.

Spring-flowering bulbs need fertilizer in the fall. In particular, phosphorous is needed to encourage root growth. Phosphorus moves very little once it is applied to the soil, so while planting bulbs, incorporate bone meal or superphosphate in the soil beneath the depth at which the bulbs will be located to ensure that it will be used.

The best method of planting is to dig and loosen the entire bed to the proper depth. Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths should be planted with the nose of the bulb pointing up and the root plate facing down. Press the bulb into the soil and cover it with more soil. Water the bulbs after planting; this will help settle the soil in the planting bed and provide needed moisture for the bulbs to start rooting. A three- to four-inch layer of organic mulch such as shredded leaves, grass clippings, or straw will insulate the bulbs and help keep the soil temperature constant.

With minimal care and effort, bulbs can add a splash of color to every corner of the yard. For more information, visit the University of Illinois Extension's "Bulbs and More" Web page, www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/bulbs/index.html.

Free trees

The National Arbor Day Foundation is offering 10 free trees to each person who joins the nonprofit organization during October.

The tree giveaway is part of the foundation's "Trees for America" campaign.

New members will get two sugar maples, two red maples, and a scarlet oak, a sweetgum, a red oak, a silver maple, a white dogwood, and a Washington hawthorn. The trees will be shipped postpaid between Nov. 1 and Dec. 10 with planting instructions.

To join, send a $10 membership contribution by Oct. 31 to "Autumn Classic Trees," National Arbor Day Foundation, 100 Arbor Ave., Nebraska City, NE 68410.

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