Bulb Tips FAQs

Answers to the most frequently asked questions.

Don’t my bulbs need water to survive?
Yes, but all it takes is a little. With some occasional watering from you, bulbs get all the water they need to blossom?

If the ground is dry, will my bulbs still take root?
Bulbs pack muscle. And even if the ground is dry, they’ll push through. Just be sure to give your bulbs a drink from time to time.

Do I need to change how much attention I devote to my bulbs during a drought?
The best thing about bulbs is they don’t require much attention no matter the conditions. As long as you give your bulbs a healthy drink after planting, they’ll grow up fine.

Should I apply mulch? How deep? When?
Bulbs don’t require mulch, but it can help to keep the soil moist while maintaining a cool, stable soil temperature. Three inches is plenty (8 cm). Apply when the ground is cool and just before it freezes. If you mulch when the ground is still warm, field mice and other critters might make themselves a warm, winter home and help themselves to some tasty bulb treats.

Should I fertilize bulbs?
Bulbs contain the nutrients they need to bloom their first year, but a fertilizing program will keep plants healthy and ward off diseases and pests. Compost and manure are two good organic fertilizers that improve the soil and ensure a good soil structure for bulbs. Use organic supplements to add nutritional balance. Compound mineral fertilizers can also be applied, but check the label to see if fertilizing is appropriate for your bulbs and the best time of year to do so.

Are there bulbs that scare off mice?
Don’t we wish! While no bulb will ward off mice, voles, moles and other underground pests, there are some easy precautions that can protect your bulbs. One is to plant bulbs deeply enough then cover them properly with soil to deter mice. A second is to create a barrier: simply lay finely meshed netting or chicken wire around the border of the planting then tuck the edges slightly into the soil.

I have seen the same variety of bulb priced very differently, some very cheap and others quite expensive. What’s the difference?
In a word: size. Bulbs from Holland are gauged by “caliber” which is the circumference of the bulb. Since larger bulbs yield larger flowers, they typically cost more. Smaller caliber bulbs are younger and often cost less. For plantings in a front bed or other highly-visible garden setting, it’s worth the higher price for the grander display. If you have a larger area or a portion of yard that’s less visible, smaller caliber bulbs can add color and enliven the scene at lower cost. Left in the ground, these bulbs will naturalize and eventually become bigger bulbs. By the way: the Dutch will not export bulbs below certain established calibers. Tulips, for instance, must be 4 inches (10 cm) or larger without exception. Only naturally sized species tulips fall outside this guideline, but no other tulip bulb smaller than 4 inches (10 cm) will be exported from Holland.

How soon should I plant my bulbs after I buy them? 
Typically, it’s best to get them in the ground as soon as possible after bringing them home. If you must wait, store bulbs in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. You don’t want to wait too long since bulbs need ample time in autumn to develop roots. So dig and drop six weeks or so prior to hard ground frosts and you’ll be done in plenty of time for spring blooms. Bulbs have one mission in life and that’s to grow, so even if you dig and drop when the ground is already hard and chilled, be sure to water (though not when it will freeze) and bulbs will begin their root growth cycle. They aim to please!

Can I store bulbs in the refrigerator? 
Often times, people seeking the best selection will buy bulbs before they’re ready to plant them. If you must wait, you can keep bulbs in the crisper drawer so long as you avoid storing them with ripening fruit. They should be fine for several weeks or even months if properly handled.

Can I plant flower  bulbs around trees and shrubs?
Trees, shrubs and bulbs are all competing for nutrients in the soil, so flower bulbs planted in these locations need to be able to hold their own. It can be a good idea to choose early-flowering bulbs for these sites since they’ll stand out among the still bare woody plants. A mixture of at least six varieties of naturalizing bulbs that flower at successive times is perfect here. Plant them in variously sized clusters in the lightest spots in a wooded area, or along the edge of a wood. You’ll enjoy years of flowering that becomes increasingly profuse year after year.

Should tulips be deadheaded once the flowers start to fade?
“Deadheading,” a term for breaking off flowers from their stem, has many positive benefits for tulips planted for multiple-year flowering. Deadheading once flowers start to fade prevents the development of seedpods, a process that diverts energy from producing new bulbs to producing seeds. It also prevents petals from falling into the leaf axils and allowing certain fungal diseases (Botrytis) to develop.

Last year I planted crocuses and daffodils in the lawn. When’s the best time to mow the lawn? 
Wait six to eight weeks after flowering before mowing grass strips containing flower bulbs. You need to wait until all the aerial parts of the bulbs have withered back, since some bulbs such as Glory-of-the-snow, Squill and Winter aconite propagate by seed and their seeds need a chance to mature.

What should I do after tulips fade in the spring? What about daffodils? 
You can leave daffodils (narcissi) as they are, but tulips should be dead-headed after flowers have faded. Simply clip off the faded bloom so they won’t go to seed. Resist the temptation to bunch, tie, braid or cut the leaves as the plant dies back. Photosynthesis is turning the sun’s energy into food and “recharging” the bulb for next spring. You can remove them once the leaves turns brown or six weeks after flowering. In the meantime, you can camouflage fading foilage by interplanting annuals or perennials. Leave room in the bed for these by planting bulbs in large clumps rather than full beds.

Is it better to plant bulbs earlier or later in the fall? 
The earlier you can plant bulbs in fall, the better. Planting times vary, of course, depending on your hardiness zone. Bulbs need time to establish strong root systems before the winter frosts set in. Don’t forget to water newly planted bulbs — it helps get the roots going! Once the cold arrives, bulbs enter a new cycle to prepare for spring blooming.

Is it true that the bigger the tulip bulb, the better the flower?
Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. Bigger bulbs do yield bigger flowers, but tulipa tarda — among the most delicate and lovely bulb flowers you can grow — is a tiny bulb (and quite hardy) compared to a large Darwin hybrid bulb such as ‘Apeldoorn.’

Do tulips prefer a sunny or shady spot in the yard?
Tulips love both sun and shade. Remember, though, that tulips bloom in spring when there’s a lot of sun because all the deciduous, non-evergreen trees in your yard have yet to leaf out.

Why are my daffodils blooming so much later this year than they did the first?
Naturalized bulbs tend to bloom about two weeks later in subsequent years than they did their first year. So keep that in mind when choosing bulbs for “color combos.” If you want to coordinate spring blooms or add new bulbs to an existing planting, don’t forget to factor in the later bloom time.

Why can’t I plant tulips in the Spring?
Tulips, daffodils and other spring-flowering bulbs require a long period of cool temperatures to undergo the biochemical process that allows them to flower. So, in the fall get them in the ground ideally six weeks before hard freezes to give them the time they need to develop strong roots.

The Fritillaria imperialis bulbs I bought have a really bad smell. Is there something wrong with them?
The fragrant “stink lily” (at least, that’s what the Dutch have nicknamed the Crown Imperial). Its skunky, old gym sock smell is a natural characteristic of the bulb and its flowers. Moles can’t stand the smell of them either, which makes them the perfect deterrent for these destructive nuisances.