Autumn might mean cider, changing foliage and heavy sweaters, but it’s also the time of year to think about spring flowers. Yes, spring flowers! That’s because this is the season for buying and planting bulbs.
Looking for a family activity that doesn’t involve pumpkins or costumes? This will get the kids playing in dirt while laying the groundwork for a beautiful yard once winter is over. With some simple guidelines, everyone can be an autumn gardener.
Will these flowers be in a landscaped bed, along a short walkway, or are they for an apartment deck? Some flower choices fit certain sites better than others, depending on the height desired. These spring flowers can range anywhere from three inches to 32 inches tall. And although most flowers do best in partial to full sun, there are those that thrive in the shade.
What about wildlife? Knowing your animal neighbors will help determine which bulbs to plant. Squirrels, chipmunks and voles love to dig up bulbs, especially tulips and crocuses. Deer enjoy snacking on the greens and flowers. Controlling these pests is not possible, but purchasing deer- or rodent-resistant bulbs is an option.
Keep in mind that some bulbs don’t grow well near black walnut trees. The trees produce juglone, an allelopathic chemical that is a toxic to many plants. Luckily, snowdrops, crocuses and hyacinths may be planted next to walnut trees. If you’re concerned, a raised bed with its own soil will eliminate that potential problem.
Establishing soil type is important, too. Well-draining soil works best. We have a lot of clay and sandy terrain here, so think about mixing in organic matter before planting. This will give your bulbs the nutrients they’ll need to withstand a deep freeze and flourish come springtime. Compost, manure and bone meal are good choices and can be found in just about every lawn and garden store.
Right now bulbs (and other bulb-like root systems like tubers and rhizomes) are available in grocery stores by the entryways and in home improvement places. They are in those mesh bags with a picture of the flowers on front. Have the kids pick out the bulbs. Most spring bulbs are perennials, or flowers that have a short bloom time but that will return each year. Carefully check the label because some tulips are annuals. After all the work getting them planted, they’ll bloom once and that’s it.
As a general rule, the bigger the bulb, the bigger the flower next spring. Bigger flowers might mean fewer bulbs you’ll need to purchase. A sidewalk can look great with a single tulip planted every few feet. A large space can pop with a field of flowers almost overnight from a few bags of daffodils, but be careful. Some flowers naturalize—or spread out—year after year. These guys are hard to keep in their designated area.
And before purchasing anything, be mindful of time. An overambitious trip to the hardware store only takes a few minutes. Putting the goods in the ground will take considerably longer. Trust me on this one.
How do you choose your palette? Children love bright colors, and spring blooms are full of them. Let them choose the color or nudge them toward an accent theme; as an example, red flowers are dazzling next to white houses with black trim. For a bang of beauty all at once, stick with bulbs that hit their peak together.
I try to maintain the blossoms in my landscaped island by overlapping their bloom time from March until May. Have a large area and want to look like a pro? Buy a few different kinds of flowers in the same color for each blooming period. For example: All pink flowers bud out in early spring, by mid-spring the purple ones take over and for late spring it’s everything red.
Gather and Plan
It’s best to plant bulbs several weeks before a hard frost so the root system can get established. If that’s not possible, put them in anyway. Terry Ettinger, the host of Time Warner Cable’s Garden Journeys, has admitted to digging through snow and just enough ground to be able to get his bulbs planted. So no pressure, it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Next, gather supplies. Work gloves are a must for everyone. I’ve seen kid-sized versions of those and gardening tools everywhere from Target to the Christmas Tree Shop. Cushioned kneeling pads are inexpensive and last for years. A few trowels, like tiny pointed shovels, are perfect for little hands. If your area doesn’t have ideal soil, I would turn the area over with a rototiller first to keep little kids from melting down when they can’t break ground. Children age 7 and up can use spades to help us old folks out if manual labor is the only option.
Plan out where the bulbs will go, and follow the directions on the packaging. I love my bulb planter, which is graded in inches for easy depth measuring. Twisting the metal tube-like tool in the loosened soil is easy enough for even young kids to do. Either dig a hole for each bulb or hollow out a trough, ensuring spacing and depth all at once. Elementary-aged children can use a measuring tape, mark off the designated areas and plant the bulbs (fat end down!). Even toddlers can help cover the bulbs with dirt or use a small watering can. Smaller flowers look best in groupings that don’t require any precision. Just dig a wide area for the kids to scatter the bulbs.
For those with limited space, container planting is fun, too. There are several versions of spring flowers that are ideal for containers. (Look for miniature or dwarf varieties.) Choose a large enough container to be able to layer with an inch or two of drainage material like gravel. Fill the rest with potting soil mixed with a little bone meal. Choose bulbs with shallow planting depths to accommodate the full-grown planter. If the planter has a face, plant small bulbs up front and larger ones behind them for a pleasing arrangement. Don’t forget to water the areas well.
Mark It Down
Once everything is in the ground, a map can be made of where everything is planted. Six months of winter is just enough time for me to forget what I planted in October. Last spring I pulled up three-quarters of my new flower greens, thinking they were weeds, before I remembered I put them there on purpose.
The hard work is over and the waiting begins. This is a good lesson in patience for everyone.