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Plant Spring Flowering Bulbs in the Fall

Plant Spring Flowering Bulbs in the Fall

Gardeners may wonder why spring flowering bulbs are a timely topic now when fall is tip-toeing in, but as with most things in horticulture, there is a method to the madness. While many gardeners have become accustomed to running out to the local garden center and buying flats or pots of blooming bedding plants to create “instant gardens”, this last-minute approach simply does not and will not work when spring-flowering bulbs are desired in the landscape. So procrastinators beware! If beautiful beds of daffodils, tulips or Dutch irises are wanted next spring, now is the time to act, not next spring when everyone else’s are blooming.

Spring-flowering bulbs are generally defined as those that bloom here in north Florida between February and April. Information is available dividing these bulbs into categories based on when they bloom in the spring – such as very early, early, mid-season, late and very late. This will allow the garden to be in flower over a longer period during the season.

When buying bulbs, purchase the highest quality stock possible. The quality of the bulb correlates directly to the quality of the blooms. Selecting loose bulbs at a local garden center is like choosing produce at the supermarket. Pick the largest, plumpest bulbs that are firm with no obvious cuts, soft spots or rot. When ordering from a catalog, do it as soon as possible and generally choose the larger sizes when offered.

Be picky, look for high quality bulbs.

Be picky, look for high quality bulbs.

Choose selections wisely as the flowers of many bulbs do not last an especially long time. For example, while a tulip is a great bulb and an extremely attractive flower, it produces one flower that lasts about seven to ten days and then just like that, it’s done. Ranunculus, on the other hand, can bloom over a four- to six-week period. One thing to expect across the board, however, is the price for color from bulbs is going to be higher than for longer-flowering cool-season bedding plants like pansies and dianthus. If gardening budgets are limited, use spring bulbs more for embellishment and let cool season bedding plants provide the primary floral display.

Obtaining a nice display of spring flowering bulbs depends upon where and how they are planted. Good drainage, part to full sun and moderately fertile soil are all that are needed for bulbs to do well. The average landscape bed generally provides adequate drainage, but avoid low spots that tend to stay moist as this will cause bulbs to rot in a hurry.  If drainage is in doubt, plant in raised beds. Choose a spot where there is some shade from the afternoon sun, this allows the flowers to last a little longer, especially if the spring weather turns warm.

It is important to plant bulbs at the proper depth. A rule of thumb is to plant bulbs at a depth equal to twice their height. This far south we generally don’t plant bulbs quite as deep as standard recommendations. Smaller bulbs are planted about 1 or 2 inches deep while larger bulbs are planted about 5 inches deep. Dig individual holes the proper depth, or excavate out, the area to be planted, to the recommended depth and plant all of the bulbs at once.

Once the bulbs are in the ground, plant over them with low growing cool season annuals, such as alyssum, violas, lobelia or pansies. Be careful not to disturb the bulbs. The annuals cover the bare soil and provide color before, during and after the bulbs bloom. Make sure the bulbs will produce blooms that are taller than the annuals, and make sure the colors of the annual flowers contrast with or compliment the flowers of the bulbs in a pleasant way.

Although the proper time to plant most bulbs is October and November, there are a couple of notable exceptions. Tulips and hyacinths will perform much better if they are refrigerated at least six weeks in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator prior to planting (storing longer than six weeks is better) starting now. Store them in paper or net bags (well labeled.) The paper or net allows excellent air circulation that in turn will decrease rot.  Avoid storing them near apples and other fruit as these fruit produce a plant hormone called ethylene that can severely alter everything from the time a bulb will bloom to shape, to survival. Plant them in late December or early January when the soil has had a chance to get cold.

Many of the spring bulbs available locally or in catalogs will only bloom reliably for us their first year. Some of the favorites include: tulip, grape hyacinth, crocus, hyacinth, ranunculus, anemone, scilla, freesia, ixia, sparaxis and ornithogalum.

The following are some of the spring bulbs that tend to be reliably long-lived in north Florida and should bloom for several years at least: Narcissus cultivars such as paperwhites, Chinese Sacred Lily, Soleil d’Or, Grand Primo, Cheerfulness, jonquils, Sweetness, Trevethian, Peeping Tom, February Gold, Thalia, Ice Wings, Petrel and larger flowered daffodil cultivars such as Ice Follies, Unsurpassable, Carlton and Fortune.

Other reliable re-blooming bulbs include snowflake (Leucojum aestivum), some flowering onions (Allium neapolitanum, Allium drummondii), ground orchid (Bletilla striata), amaryllis (Hippeastrum species and hybrids), Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica), spring star flower (Ipheion uniflorum), Dutch iris (Iris x hollandica) and Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum).

You can also find an excellent publication written by Dr. Gary Knox on low maintenance bulbs at UF IFAS Extension’s EDIS website.


Author: Robert Trawick – rob.trawick@ufl.edu

I’m the horticulture extension agent in Jackson County, Florida. I received my B.S. and M.S. degrees at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. Previously I was the residential horticulture extension agent for Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA and Lafayette, LA.

Robert Trawick

Permanent link to this article: http://okaloosa.ifas.ufl.edu/newsletters/2013/10/07/plant-spring-flowering-bulbs-in-the-fall/