Bulb planting: Hurry up and wait (with or without the lawnmower)

Bulbs

Snowdrops, shot at RBG Wisley in England, January 2015.

We’re getting close to bulb planting time. We’re not there quite yet but that hasn’t stopped garden centres from busting out with heaving displays of flowers in every colour, shape and height. Once I finally get around to buying some (always way more than I need), I like to get them into the ground as fast as possible. This isn’t because the bulbs need to be planted ASAP. It’s just that I can’t think of a more boring thing to do than plant bulbs. Digging in the first 20 or so is kind of fun. After that, I want to just throw them on the ground and walk away.

But there are ways to hurry up the process a bit. Here are a couple of tricks I’ve learned (developing patience isn’t one of them):

There’s no need to be careful: Tulips and daffodils don’t really care which way you plant them–up, down or sideways. They’ll sort themselves out in time for spring regardless. You only have to worry about not-so-easy-going hyacinths. They need to be planted with the basal plate down and tips up.

Multi-task with a shrub or two: I’ve found better success with bulbs by ignoring the instructions on packages of imported bulbs. If the bulbs came from Europe, the planting depths may be more suitable for a milder winter than ours. A good rule of thumb for gardeners in frigid Ontario is to plant bulbs to a depth equal to 4 or 5 times the height of the bulb. Here’s the timesaving part: Since fall is the best time to plant shrubs, I’ve always got a couple of shrubs ready to go into the ground at the same time as my new bulbs. If the shrub is deciduous, I’ll make sure I’ve got a handful of bulbs at the ready. I’ll place the shrub’s root ball into the hole, and then fill up the hole with dirt to the right level for the bulbs. Then in they go and I fill up the rest of the hole.

Roll up the lawn: Planting bulbs directly into your lawn is a great look. Drifts of flowers in lawns is a big trend over in England and has been for a long time. For an extensive list of grass-friendly bulbs, check out the Royal Horticultural Society’s online article which also includes some helpful planting tips. The only drawback I can see in making your turf do double duty as flower-sprigged meadow and pristine lawn is that you have to wait a little longer in the spring before you can bring out the lawn mower.

When planting bulbs in the grass…

…think about how high your un-mown turf is going to grow. Then choose your bulbs accordingly. You don’t want your teeny tiny bulbs overshadowed by great tufts of grass.

…try this idea for a fall show, too. You just reverse the process: plant fall-flowering bulbs in the spring in a section of lawn, then stop mowing that section once you see the bulbs’s shoots popping up. You’ll have a lovely wild fall meadow look.

If you plan on pulling up a lot of turf to plant your bulbs, fall is probably the best time to do it because the cooler, wet weather gives grass roots the best chance to recover.

If you love the grasses-and-flowers look but don’t want to sacrifice your lawn, try planting a flower bed with ornamental grasses and taller, summer flowering bulbs like alliums.

Here’s a short video from Landscape Ontario on planting bulbs on a massive scale. Watching a demonstration of the huge bulb planting machine is interesting though that kind of help is out of most people’s price range unless you’ve got as much money as the Queen of England. She was thinking of buying one. But there are some good tips on how to make the whole bulbs-in-the-lawn thing work, particularly if you’re worried about whether the final look will look a little too wild.

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