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ASK MARTHA: PLANNING AND PLANTING SPRING FLOWERING BULBS

Even budding gardeners can create a patch - or pots - of paradise, with a few simple steps. From choosing the right bulbs for your location to planting them at the right time, the following primer for planting outdoor bulbs and forcing bulbs indoors will walk you through the journey to success.

Question: Hi Martha, How Do You Plan and Plant a Spring Bulb Garden?

Martha Stewart: Even budding gardeners can create a patch - or pots - of paradise, with a few simple steps. From choosing the right bulbs for your location to planting them at the right time, the following primer for planting outdoor bulbs and forcing bulbs indoors will walk you through the journey to success.

HOW TO PLANT BULBS OUTDOORS

Fall is the best time to plant spring blooms such as tulips, daffodils, and hyacinth, which will allow them ample time to get established over the winter. The ground should be cool; don't plant bulbs until you've had a week or more of below-50-degree temperatures (as soon after the first frost as possible) and the ground feels cool at about 6 inches deep.

These steps are for planting flowers that start as bulbs; examples include tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, anemones, and crocuses. All these bulbs are excellent for beginners (and more experienced gardeners, too). Aim for a mix of spring-blooming bulbs as well as bulb varieties that continue to bloom into early summer.

1. SELECT THE FLOWERS

Start by choosing plants that can thrive in your zone. Since bulbs are a relatively low-cost endeavor, you may want to experiment on a small scale with other varieties, too. Purchase your bulbs from a reputable supplier and save the tags for planting instructions.

2. TIME IT RIGHT

When you plant bulbs is key to their longevity. There are general guidelines for planting in different zones provided on bulb labels; however, you can be sure you are timing it right by following these tips:

For summer flowers such as gladioli and dahlias, it's essential to wait until after the last frost in spring to plant (and better late than early, in case of unexpected temperature drops). A good rule of thumb is to wait until after at least two weeks of above-50-degree nighttime temperatures to check the ground, which should feel warm at about 6 inches deep.

Plant the bulbs as soon after buying as possible to keep them from withering or growing moldy. If you must wait, keep them in a cool place away from direct sunlight, such as in a potting shed, garage, or basement.

3. PLANT PROPERLY

Plant bulbs on a cool day when the earth is slightly damp but still friable, meaning just moist enough to clump together. Bulbs need soil that drains well; don't try to plant in mud or ultra-dry earth (Same goes for planting in containers). To ensure a unified look, try to plant all bulbs in an area at the same time. A sunny location works well, but you can plant under deciduous trees, as the bulbs will receive enough sunlight before the trees leaf out in the spring.

Before digging, arrange the bulbs on the ground as desired, or simply scatter the bulbs, for a more natural look

Dig each hole to a depth that is roughly 3 times the diameter of the bulb and just wide enough to hold it snugly. (Plant small bulbs 3 to 5 inches deep; larger bulbs 6 to 8 inches deep.) Or, in smaller flower beds, remove the top layer of soil to the proper planting depth.

I recommend using Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics All Purpose In-Ground Soil or Miracle Gro® Garden Soil for Flowers for amending native soil.

Before planting bulbs and tubers in the ground, loosen the soil and introduce organic matter to stimulate and support root development. Use Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics All Purpose In-Ground Soil or  Miracle Gro® Garden Soil for Flowers for amending native soil.

During the winter months, bulbs will send out new roots into the soil. To continue the support of root growth and encourage healthy flowers, apply a high phosphorus plant food, such as Miracle-Gro® Shake 'n Feed Rose & Bloom Plant Food. Add plant food into the prepared holes and mix into the soil. Scatter fertilizer or amendments such as bone meal over the area.

Place the bulb, tapered side up, in the hole, then backfill the hole with soil, pressing lightly to eliminate air pockets and secure bulbs upright.

To nourish bulbs, prevent weeds, and trap in moisture, top bed with a thin layer of rich compost or mulch, cover surrounding soil with 1 to 3 inches of mulch and water well.

Oftentimes critters will want to dig up bulbs since they are an ideal energy-packed food source for squirrels, chipmunks, and other mammals. A good tip to help prevent this from ruining your hard work is to use a physical barrier. A fine chicken wire can be staked down after planting, and before mulching.

HOW TO FORCE BULBS INDOORS

Some bulbs do not require a cold period in the ground before they will bloom. Forcing is the technique whereby a bulb is stimulated to bloom ahead of its natural cycle. Paperwhites, a fragrant member of the daffodil family, are easily grown indoors in pebbles or in soil.

Here’s how:

Using Pebbles:

Fill a waterproof pot or dish with pebbles and place the bulbs in your container, pointed end up, as close together as you’d like. Be sure to add enough pebbles to cover about three-quarters of the bulb so they are secure. Water following bulb package instructions, being sure not to let the water evaporate completely. Keep out of direct sun until the bulbs grow roots and then move them into your preferred location. Blooming time is usually 4 to 6 weeks.

Using Soil:

Choose a container that has a good drainage hole and place a few shards over the hole to prevent soil from leaking out. Fill about half-way to two-thirds with a good potting soil, such as Miracle-Gro® Indoor Potting Mix. Place the bulbs, pointed end up as close together as you’d like. Cover with more soil until the bulb is two-thirds covered and secure in the soil. Water when the soil feels dry about an inch below the surface.  Keep out of direct sun until the bulbs grow roots and then move them into your preferred location. Blooming time is usually 4 to 6 weeks.

MARTHA’S TIP

Paperwhites are a favorite for the season, but they tend to grow too tall and flop to one side. To rein them in, when you root your bulbs, add a solution of 1 part rubbing alcohol and 10 parts water. They’ll stop growing at about two-thirds their usual height. Repeat filling with alcohol and water solution as needed.

MARTHA'S SPRING-BLOOMING BULB PICKS

If you enjoy having beautiful bouquets in your home, be sure to choose flowers that grow well in your zone, selecting ones that bloom at different times. Here are some of my favorites:

MARTHA’s PROJECT: Planting a Container Bulb Lasagna

Spring flowering bulbs are equally at home in pots as they are in the ground. Plant multiple bulbs of the same type of flower or layer different bulbs to create what’s known as a bulb lasagna. To create a bulb lasagna, choose bulbs that will bloom at different times and the result will be a continuous bouquet in a pot.

Step 1

Choose a pot that’s both deep enough and wide enough to accommodate multiple layers – at least 12” tall for 2 or 3 layers of bulbs. It’s critical that the pot has a drainage hole. Place shards to cover the hole to prevent soil loss while still draining excess water. Good drainage is an important key to growing bulbs in pots. Fill with a nutrient-rich potting soil to reach approximately 8 inches from the top, like Miracle Gro Performance Organics Container Mix.

Step 2

Begin placing your bulbs, with the largest on the bottom layer. You can plant bulbs more snugly than you would in the ground, leaving approximately the width of one bulb, or 1 inch between them. Cover the bulbs well with about 3-4 inches of soil, depending on the depth of your pot.

Step 3

Continue to layer bulbs and soil, reaching just below the top rim of your pot, and then cover with a final layer of soil. Gently press down on the soil to ensure that the soil stays in place and bulbs are secure. Water enough to moisten the soil but do not overwater.

Step 4

Storing your planted container is the next and final step before spring. The bulbs will remain dormant in the soil over the winter season. Most spring-blooming bulbs need between 10 and 14 weeks of cold weather to promote beautiful, healthy flowers. You must keep the container in a location between 35-45 degrees, but the bulbs must not be allowed to freeze. An unheated garage, sunroom, or shed provides the right conditions. Water very sparingly during this period; you want the soil to be moist, but not wet, or the bulbs will rot.

Check the bulbs for sprouts as spring approaches. When you see shoots emerge, you can move your pots outside to your preferred location and enjoy!

Article by Martha Stewart, as part of the Growing with Martha Stewart partnership.