SPRING FLOWERING BULBS - Tips for Success and Reasons for Failures
Jim Willmott, Camden County Agricultural Agent

Spring flowering bulbs bring abundant color to landscapes. A well-planned bulb garden offers a continuous sequence of color beginning in March when winter aconites, glory of the snow, and snowdrops appear. Then crocuses start with the smaller species which are more subtle in color than the bigger, bolder and more familiar hybrids. Soon after come the daffodils, which are much more diverse in size and color than that revealed in most American gardens. The bulb finale is dominated by tulips, which offer a rainbow of colors. Despite their delightful potential, spring bulbs often disappoint. Let's consider common reasons for landscape failure.

Planting BulbsAll garden plants have unique site requirements and bulbs are no exception. If species selection is compatible with site conditions, expect successful establishment and enduring performance as long as planting practices are correct. Be sure to plant at the recommended depth and in late summer or early fall. Finally, consider natural habitats when matching plants to suitable garden sites.

Ideally, a garden site should be similar to a plant's natural habitat. Daffodils, for example, originate in sunny mountain meadows where the soil is usually cool and damp from late autumn until spring. Tulips like it sunny, but warmer and drier. Other species like winter aconites, snowdrops and scilla like woodland sites where there is shade most of the year, and the soil is "humusy" and moist. The one common requirement for all bulbs is excellent soil drainage. Poor drainage favors rotting, which is one of the most significant causes of bulb failures.

Poor care can also cause problems. Over-watering some species like tulips and daffodils during the summer is often fatal. On the other hand, allowing winter aconites or scilla to dry during the summer can result in disappointment. Again, try to understand native site conditions and treat each species accordingly. New Jersey landscapes in sandy coastal areas including the pinelands need careful attention to irrigation, fertilization and liming. Dry soils and poor fertility can greatly limit bulb performance in these areas. Adding organic matter such as compost will help to stabilize soil moisture and nutrient levels. Be sure to mulch too. Another cultural mistake is removing foliage too soon. If it is allowed to yellow and wither before removal, foliage will produce additional carbohydrates to store as energy for next season's display. Finally, failure of new plantings is often due to poor storage and handling prior to planting or animal damage. Always purchase from reputable dealers and take measures to prevent damage from mice, squirrels and deer. Daffodils are the least likely to suffer animal damage.

Despite occasional failures, few garden plants offer the rewards of spring flowering bulbs. By understanding native habitats and correct planting techniques, they will brighten spring landscapes and help us recover from the dark and dreary days of winter.