September may not seem like the time to be thinking about tulips and daffodils for your Michigan garden but since most spring flowering bulbs need to be planted in the fall, now is the perfect time to purchase those bulbs. If you purchase bulbs in early fall you won’t have to worry about stores and nurseries running out of the bulbs you want and the bulbs will be fresh and healthy. Many garden shops carry bulbs but mail order catalogs have an extensive inventory of species, varieties and colors.
Michigan gardeners can plant just about any of the spring flowering bulbs without worry. Our cold winters are just what they need to set flower buds for spring bloom. Spring flowering bulbs are generally the earliest things to bloom in Michigan gardens and get spring off to a cheerful start. Plant your bulbs where you can see them from the house, or along paths and drives for optimum viewing. And be sure to plant lots of bulbs so you can pick some for spring bouquets.
Tulips, daffodils, narcissus, crocus, alliums, and hyacinths are the major spring flowering bulbs but many other species exist, often called minor bulbs, for those who like something different. Within the common bulbs there are hundreds of varieties and colors. Bulbs like tulips also have varieties that bloom at slightly different times so you can stretch the color show.
Choosing spring bulbs
First decide what kinds of bulbs you like and where you have space for bulbs. Bulbs can go into perennial beds or in spots just for them. Bulb foliage needs to die down naturally so the bulb’s leaves can produce food for next years bloom. Perennials like daylilies and hosta will help hide the dying foliage of bulbs. Annuals can also be planted after the bulbs finish blooming to hide the foliage.
Some bulbs like crocus and snowdrops bloom as early as March in Michigan and you can have bulbs blooming into late June if you choose a variety of species and choose early, mid and late bloomers among such bulbs as daffodils and tulips. Daffodils, narcissus and alliums are pretty much left alone by deer if you have that problem. Tulips, however, are like candy to them.
To help you decide on how many bulbs to plant plan on 4 inches between large tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, 2-3inches apart for small bulbs like crocus and species tulips. Really large alliums need 6-8 inches between them. Bulbs look better planted in groups rather than in a single file. A planting that looks a little crowded is more appealing than bulbs widely scattered in a bed.
You may want to plan a color scheme. Many bulbs now come packaged in complementary color selections like shades of pink or red and white but it’s easy to make your own blends. When planning a color scheme make sure the bulbs you choose all bloom at the same time.
Choose large, plump bulbs in the store. Moldy, shriveled, or soft bulbs should be avoided. The papery skins that most bulbs have should be mostly intact. Different species have different sized bulbs but look for bulbs labeled number one or top size. Larger sized bulbs generally cost more than bulbs of the same type in a smaller size. Medium sized bulbs may be an economical choice and will flower fairly well, but really small and generally really cheap bulbs may not bloom next spring.
How to plant bulbs
In Michigan bulbs can be planted from September until the ground freezes. Bulbs that are planted really late may be late blooming the first year after planting. Don’t wait until all the other plants in the bed have died down for winter. You’ll be less likely to disturb roots if you plant earlier and the foliage of perennials and annuals still in the garden help hide the spots where you just planted bulbs from squirrels and other animals who might eat them.
The general rule of thumb is to plant bulbs 3 times as deep as they are around. Special bulb planters often have depth markings on them, if not use a ruler at first to get a feel for proper depth. In heavy clay plant bulbs slightly higher, in very sandy soil slightly deeper. You can dig individual holes or excavate larger areas to plant many bulbs. Make sure you get the top of the bulb up. In many bulbs that’s the pointed end. In some bulbs it’s hard to tell top from bottom. Look for a scar and often a slight hollow where the old stem came off.
Think twice about planting bulbs in lawn areas to naturalize. You won’t be able to mow the lawn until the bulb foliage dies down on its own if you want the bulbs to return next year and multiply. Some people don’t like the untidy look that can lead to in the spring. If you have a wild pasture type area bulbs can naturalize there or place them on lawn edges.
Bulbs do not really need fertilizer their first year. If you feel you must fertilize use a slow release granular fertilizer formulated for flowers according to label directions. Do not use bone meal in the hole as many older books direct you to do. Bone meal actually attracts animals like squirrels and mice which dig up the bulbs looking for it and then eat them or leave them lying exposed. Bulbs don’t need to be watered when planting either, Michigan’s fall and winter weather will take care of that.
Most bulbs prefer a full sun location. They can be planted under trees which shed their leaves however, because they will have completed much of their growth before the trees leaf out in spring. Always choose a well drained area for bulbs.
Most bulbs that you plant in your Michigan garden will be there for years and will multiply over time. Tulips are not as hardy in Michigan. Many will slowly fade out after a few years. You may want to treat them as annuals and re-plant tulips each year or choose varieties labeled as “perennial tulips.”
Even though September in Michigan can be warm and sunny, you will be glad you planned ahead when your garden bursts into bloom after a long Michigan winter. Plant those spring bloomers now and spring will be beautiful at your home.