Growing Concerns 534: Planting bulbs in clumps, resurrected redbud

In this issue:

Being smart when planting bulbs
Spring bulb show: Watch it, change it
Waiting to prune re-grown redbud
Up to tracking rain in case Nature falters
Down to tent caterpillar over-kill

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Plant bulbs in clusters for most dramatic spring display

 

Dear Janet and Steven,

I recently purchased 120 bulbs, and would like help designing how to plant them. I would ideally like to create large clumps of maybe 9 or 11 bulbs. I've purchase three varieties of early blooming and three varieties of late blooming tulips. Early spring is my only chance at much color due to the shade in my yard. They range in color from solid pink to solid white.

Do I just plant clumps of one color, or should I mix varieties? I'm trying to get a more dramatic color display.

I was told that I should plant the bulbs six to eight inches deep, and add either bone meal or bulb food. Is this correct? When should I be planting these bulbs? - C.B. -

Dear C.B.,

Mass plantings put in each fall and removed in spring are the most dramatic, and  may be your best bet since you have shade. Even though your lot may be sunny during early tulip season before the trees leaf out, if the leaves of those tulips don't get enough sun after bloom time and the bulbs don't get enough heat during summer -- shaded ground tends to stay too cool -- it's unlikely the bulbs will bloom well in subsequent years.

To plant for the most dramatic display of bulbs as perennials, start by locating several sunny spots in your yard that are visible from the approaches you use and windows you frequent in April and early May. Use markers, such as brightly colored paper taped to bamboo stakes, to outline the width and depth of a potential planting area. Then go to a selected viewing location to see if that area's size and shape will attract and hold your attention.

How many bulbs? Once you have know where bulbs would make a good splash, you can figure how many bulbs you will need. We put groups of three or four bulbs every couple of feet throughout the area. The further the area is from the viewer, the larger it has to be for impact and the more bulbs it takes to fill it.

Plant just one kind of bulb in each group -- just an early type or just a late variety. To plant both early and late varieties in one area you need double the bulbs -- the number you calculated times early bulbs plus that number times late bulbs. We don't usually double up on tulips because so many bulbs can be difficult to fit without compromising the cover-up perennials or creating so much bulb foliage that it's nearly impossible to interplant the area with annuals until quite late the following spring. All that yellowing bulb foliage, although important to the next year's show, can be annoying to look at for a month before annuals can go in.

We like solid color groups but you can mix colors -- one late pink and two late white bulbs in a clump for instance. Or plant one whole area with late pink, another with mixed late pink and white and a third with just late white.

Avoid making straight lines with your groups. Irregular is better for perennialized bulbs.

Plant anytime in fall, until the ground freezes. Earlier is better but if you can dig and the bulb's still firm, go for it!

Go deep, too. Tulips should be planted at least six inches deep. Deeper is better, to place them safely below the reach of later digging and to keep them from splitting into many small, non-blooming bulblets sooner than they must. I plant tulips 12 inches deep. Mix a slow release fertilizer such as bone meal or Bulb Booster into each hole, or apply a water soluble fertilizer as soon as the foliage appears next spring.

Out of season moves? Sure!

Last but not least, don't despair if you've already planted and are reading this. Take photos in spring so you will know which bulbs are where, then dig them and move them next fall. Every other trick of bulb-locating has failed us, including the sounds-so-clever colored golf tees. (We who can't even find the pruners we just dropped, can hardly locate a golf tee marker!)

Or just dig them and move them when it's convenient for you. It's what we do. Even in bloom. (Great examples in What's Coming Up 90's Transplanting spring bulbs, and Divide and place bulbs.)

Short report: Wait to prune tree's comeback growth

Hold off pruning that resurrected redbud.

So many of these trees, young and old, died this spring and had to be cut 'way back. Where stumps were left, some grew back vigorously as suckers from the surviving roots and are now three- to five foot tall redbud shrubs.

Such a prodigious growth rate means a replacement tree can be had pretty quickly by just letting some suckers grow back, thinning the canes to leave only one or a few to turn into trunks.

That's a good approach, but wait to prune the new suckers until a February thaw or early next April. That allows this year's entire foliage crop every possible minute to produce starch and store it toward next year's growth. Starch production in the leaves goes on until the leaves fall, and distribution of this essential plant food within the wood and roots continues right up until the ground freezes.

 

Green thumbs up

to rain dances. What was once a reliable event, the commencement of fall rains in the third week of September, seems to be off the calendar again this year. Many of our trees and shrubs won't make it through another dry fall so get your dancing shoes on and start chanting. Drag a few hoses out with you.

 

Green thumbs down

to burning forest tent caterpillars. These insects rarely do lasting damage, no matter how ugly or extensive the branch-encompassing tents, since they eat only current season leaves late in summer after the plant has gained much from that foliage. Your torch, on the other hand, burns wood and next year's buds!

Originally published 9/20/03

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