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Originally published Friday, November 12, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Think spring: Plant bulbs this fall

Master Gardener Joe Lamp'l offers tips on how to plant bulbs for spring blooming plants.

Scripps Howard News Service

As leaves continue to fall, now is the time to think spring. When planning your garden for next year, don't forget about adding bulbs. Fall is the perfect time to plant a variety of bulbs that will start to bloom in early spring and continue for months, depending on your selections.

Bulbs don't take long to plant and they won't break the bank. The best part about bulbs is that you can enjoy them for a long time. Bulbs such as daffodils will spread and naturalize and keep on blooming year after year.

Fall is the best time to plant bulbs for two reasons: The soil is warm enough to promote early root growth, and a cold period is still ahead — an essential element to a great spring display. Bulbs require about 12 weeks of chilling, although some smaller bulbs such as snowdrops, crocus and scilla can get by with around six. But waiting too late to plant is a bad idea. The ground could be frozen or the bulbs may not have enough chill time before spring arrives. The result will be spring foliage without flowers.

A variety of bulbs are readily available in fall at garden centers and big-box stores. Just be sure, when selecting bulbs, to find the largest, firmest bulbs possible. Larger bulbs of the same type generally will perform better and have a superior display. Avoid bulbs that feel soft or mushy. For even more variety, check out the huge selection of bulbs available on the Internet and in catalogs. The bulbs will be shipped to you at the ideal planting time for your area. When they arrive, plant them as soon as possible.

All bulbs prefer fertile, well-drained soil. Planting areas that are low, damp or poorly drained will shorten bulbs' life and performance. Amend the selected area with compost and organic matter. Incorporate some bone meal or bulb fertilizer into the bottom of the planting hole, and cover with a small amount of soil before placing your bulb. This simple yet optional step will contribute to a better start and the long-term success of your plants.

In the absence of specific information to the contrary, a good rule of thumb is to plant bulbs at a depth about three times as deep as their height. Most bulbs will have a pointed end that you plant facing up. The other side is usually wider and has tiny root hairs. When in doubt, place them on their sides and they will grow just fine.

Select a location that offers at least six hours of sun daily for best performance. Fortunately, even sites under deciduous trees often work well, especially for early-season bulbs such as crocus, snowdrops and some daffodil varieties. Their foliage and flowers have ample access to sunlight before the taller trees leaf out.

Some common mistakes when planting bulbs are to arrange them in straight rows and planting far too few. For a natural-looking planting, plant bulbs in large, casual drifts rather than lining them up like soldiers. And for the best visual impression, be sure to plant plenty. Bulbs are inexpensive and have far more appeal and impact when planted in larger groups. A few hundred bulbs will simply disappear into the earth, but come up with dazzling, colorful bursts of color in the spring.

A 2-inch layer of mulch over newly planted bulbs will help retain moisture and keep the soil warmer a bit longer so roots can establish more quickly. Finally, water them in and maintain adequate moisture to ensure success.

Even ongoing maintenance is minimal at best. You don't need to be too eager to dispose of tattered foliage after blooming. In fact, wait until the leaves have yellowed and fallen over before removing them. Bulbs derive much of their energy for next season's display from this post-bloom foliage. Removing it prematurely could have adverse consequences.

Planting bulbs is so easy, and now is the time to start. The investment in time and money is low, and the reward is a display of bright and beautiful colors to usher in the spring season for years to come.

Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information, visit www.joegardener.com.

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