Ask A Master Gardener: Tips for fall bulb planting

Get ready now for early spring color.

If you thought autumn is the time to stop gardening, think again. It's bulb-planting time!

The later part of September and into October is the time to start planning for the spring flower garden. Except for tulips, spring bulbs may be planted as soon as they are available (tulips should be kept in a cool, dark place and planted in late October).

Existing perennials, especially spring bloomers, can be divided now also. Planting spring-flowering bulbs in the fall is crucial to allow them to develop a good root system and give the bulbs an adequate period of cool temperatures to induce flowering.

If you are purchasing bulbs, make sure you buy your bulbs from a reputable nursery, garden center or catalog. Second-rate bulbs produce second-rate flowers or don't sprout at all.

Bulbs should be planted as soon as the ground is cool, when evening temperatures average in the 50s or at least six weeks before the ground freezes. You can, if necessary, store bulbs for a month or so, if you keep them in a cool dry place. When in doubt, however, the bulbs belong in the ground.

You can plant bulbs just about anywhere in your garden, so long as the soil drains well. The Dutch say, "bulbs don't like wet feet," so avoid areas where water collects, such as the bottom of hills. Bulbs also like sun, but the spring garden is very sunny -- the leaves aren't on the trees yet, so be creative.

Prepare the planting bed by digging the soil so it's loose and workable. If it's not an established garden bed, chances are the soil could use the addition of some organic matter such as compost or peat moss. These are available at most local garden retailers (if you don't have your own compost bin). Plant the pointy end up. The general rule is three times as deep as the bulb's height. If your bulb is an inch long, you will plant it about 3 inches deep. That is, measure from the bottom of the bulb to the surface of the soil.

No fertilizer is necessary for the first year's bloom. Bulbs are natural storehouses of food. If you do fertilize, it is best not to mix fertilizer in the planting hole. It can burn the roots.

Plant bulbs in a cluster. Try to avoid planting one bulb alone, or making a long thin line along the path. Clusters give a denseness of color for more impact. Even if you are short on bulbs for that big bed, small clusters can make an outstanding spring show.

A good general rule for bulbs that bloom at the same time is to plant low bulbs in front of high bulbs. Most labels will give you the height of the plant and it's approximate flowering time. Of course there are times to break this rule. For example, if the low growing bulbs bloom early and the tall bulbs bloom late, plant the tall in front. Their display will camouflage the dying foliage of the smaller bulbs.

You can also try a double-decker setup. You can plant small bulbs in a layer right on top of large bulbs. If you plant bulbs that flower in the same period, you can create an interesting double-decker effect (red tulips blooming above blue Grape Hyacinths). Or you can stagger the bloom time by planting mid- and late-season bloomers together, creating a spring display that blooms in succession, for a whole season of color.

In the end, what you do with fall bulbs is limited only by your imagination. A little time planning and planting this autumn can create months of color next spring.

Happy gardening!

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Callaway County Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]