How to plant, grow bulbs like tulips

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If you are in the northern half of the country, you should be able to grow bulbs pretty easily. Farther south, you will have to work a bit harder.

Q: I saw tulip and daffodil bulbs for sale at the store. I remember my mom having tulips, but she also had problems growing them, as I recall. I would like to plant some, but I don’t want problems. Any tricks for growing them?

A: If you are in the northern half of the country, you should be able to grow them pretty easily. Farther south, you will have to work a bit harder.

True bulbs, such as daffodil, hyacinth, lily, tulip and onion, are composed of modified leaves. Cutting a true bulb in half vertically will reveal an entire miniature plant. Next year’s photosynthetic leaves, roots, stems and flowers are surrounded by the storage leaves, which store the food necessary for growth next year.

The true bulbs you buy will be dormant plants. Typically, they need a three-month cold spell to break the dormancy. Plant them in pots or in the ground. Give them the cold, and then let them grow.

After they bloom, they need to replenish the food and nutrients back into the bulb so they can go dormant and bloom again the next year. They will not bloom well the second year if they don’t get good soil conditions for their roots or if the leaves are cut off too soon. Daffodils are more reliable than tulips for coming back each year.

Where to plant: For tulips and other spring-blooming flower bulbs, morning sun and afternoon shade are preferred. In light shade from trees, try daffodils and crocuses. In heavy shade, most bulbs will not be able to store enough food to flower well, so you may need to replant every year or two for the best blooming.

Good drainage is a must for tulips; the bulbs will not bloom and will rot if the ground stays soggy. Tulips are native to areas with sandy, rocky mountainside soil. Heavy clay soil is very bad, and too much good black topsoil can be bad if it holds too much water.

How to plant: Most bulbs are best planted two to three times deeper than the size of the bulb. The soil can be amended with bone meal or bulb fertilizer and loosened about 3 inches below the bulb planting depth so the roots can grow into good, loose soil. Cover the bed with 3 inches of mulch or compost, and water thoroughly. Keep the bed moist until the ground freezes. If it is a dry or warm winter, more watering may be required.

When to plant: Many stores sell the bulbs quite early, as many as three months earlier than the planting season. Buy them as soon as you can so you get the largest, heaviest ones that do not have any cuts, cracks or soft spots. Do not get any discolored bulbs because they might have a disease. Store them in a cool, dry location where you will not forget them.

Buying large bulbs at a garden center that lets you pick you own bulbs is better than buying boxed or bagged bulbs from a discount store, as these bulbs will be much smaller and may be damaged.

You will want to plant them as early as you can, because the longer they can grow roots before the ground freezes, the better. They should not be planted until after the ground cools to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This usually occurs after the first killing frost, so use that date as a reminder to plant them soon after that.

In parts of the country that do not get a full three months of freezing weather, the bulbs will not be able to break through their dormancy. Some southern nurseries sell bulbs that have had the cold dormancy met by being kept in a refrigerator for three months. The bulbs can be planted in pots or in the ground. They will bloom early and are treated as annuals and thrown away because they will not usually bloom again if left in the ground.

Email questions to Jeff Rugg at

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