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Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003 02:20 pm

Fall for spring bulbs

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Yellow and purple crocus peak up through a dusting of snow. Nothing brightens a winter day in March more than the colors of early blooming spring flowers. Now is the time to plant your hardy flowering bulbs.

Spring flowering bulbs--classified as "hardy bulbs"--require a cold period before breaking their dormancy. Because of their wide variation in flowering time, these bulbs can add color to the garden from February until June. Early spring bulbs include snowdrop, winter aconite, crocus, glory-of-the-snow, Siberian squill, and common grape hyacinth. Mid-spring flowering bulbs include early tulips, hyacinths, and medium-cupped daffodils. Alliums, tulips, and daffodils cap off the hardy spring bulb season.

Bulbs may be planted almost anywhere, except under evergreens or other densely shaded areas. Sunlight is needed to trigger proper growth. Light is also necessary for the period after flowering, when the foliage manufactures food to be stored in the bulb for the following year's growth cycle.

Keep in mind that mass plantings of a single variety or color will produce a greater visual impact, because uniform color and texture is pleasing to the eye. With tulips or daffodils, plant at least 12 bulbs of one variety in each grouping. Plant small bulbs near walkways, where they won't be missed.

It's important to select good-quality bulbs. They should be firm and have a protective papery skin. They should be free from soft or rotting spots, cuts, mold, or other signs of disease. Generally, the larger the bulb, the bigger the flower.

Bulbs can be obtained from local garden centers, mail-order businesses, and just about every hardware and discount store. While mail-order businesses have a larger selection of varieties, you can't see the quality of the bulb until you've bought it. Ask other gardeners to recommend companies they've dealt with in the past. Discount stores usually have the cheapest prices, but their selections tend to be limited.

When selecting bulbs from an open bin, pick out ones that look alike; sometimes bins are inadvertently mixed up by previous shoppers. Prepackaged bulbs are often smaller and should be inspected carefully.

While early October is the best time to plant spring bulbs, you should plant them as soon as you get them. If you can't plant them immediately, store them in a cool (50˚ to 60˚ F), dry place away from direct sunlight. You can plant bulbs until the soil freezes.

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

The general rule of thumb for planting spring bulbs is to plant two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall. (Planting depth is measured form the bottom of the bulb.) This means most large bulbs, like tulips or daffodils, will be planted 6- to 8-inches deep, while smaller bulbs will be planted about 3- to 4-inches deep.

Spring flowering bulbs need fertilizer in the fall. Phosphorous encourages root development--when planting, incorporate bonemeal or superphosphate into the soil below the bulbs.

Dig up and loosen the entire bed to the proper depth. Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths should be planted with the nose of the bulb upward and the root plate downward. Press the bulbs into the ground and cover with soil. Then water the bulbs--this will help settle the soil in the planting bed, plus provide needed moisture for the bulbs to start rooting. A 3- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch, such as shredded leaves, grass clippings, or straw, will insulate the bulbs and help keep soil temperature more constant.

Now you can sit back and wait until next spring for your very own floral display. For more information on bulb basics and descriptions of various spring bulbs, visit the International Flower Bulb Center's Web site at www.bulb.com, or the University of Illinois Extension's "Bulbs and More" Web site at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/bulbs/index.html.

Non-hardy bulbs

Gladiolus, cannas, caladiums, dahlias, and tuberous begonias add color to the summer garden, but they are seldom winter hardy. To preserve your summer flowering bulbs you will need to dig up and store them for replanting next season. Most can be dug up after a frost. Cut the stems back 4 to 5 inches and carefully dig out the roots with a fork or spade.

Air dry cannas and dahlias for a few hours, but do not store dried. Place them in a shallow box with sawdust, vermiculite, or dry sphagnum peat moss.

Let the roots of gladiolus, caladiums, and tuberous begonias dry in a shady, well-ventilated area. After the bulbs are dry, cut off the tops and store them in onion sacks or panty hose.

Before storing, remove any damaged or rotting material. Leave bulbs in a cool, dry, dark location, such as a basement, crawl space, unheated spare room, or moderately heated garage. Most bulbs prefer a storage temperature of 40˚F to 50˚F.

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