Small Bulbs Make a Big Impact in Spring
By Paula Hagan, Green Spring Virginia
Cooperative Extension Master Gardener
This year, try adding variety to your spring garden
by planting some of the smaller fall-planted bulbs.
For these bulbs, timing is everything. They need to
start growing their roots before cold weather. But they
also need “chill time,” when the temperature drops to
about 40 degrees for 10 to 16 weeks, before they can
bloom. In Northern Virginia, mid-October is a good plant-ing
time for fall bulbs, but they can be planted as late as
Because small bulbs usually produce small flowers, plant
a mass of them (15, 20 or more) for best effect. For Febru-ary
color try some yellow-flowered winter aconite. For March,
Chionodoxa comes in lovely shades of pink and blue. Or plant
the late-blooming, low-growing pink Oxalis, with its beauti-ful
The best time to buy bulbs at your local supplier is early September, when the best selec-tion
is available. A true bulb has all its food energy, leaves and the flower itself already
packaged inside. With bulbs, bigger is better to store all that nutrition and flower. Don’t
buy bulbs with mold, cuts or that have already started growing two inches or more.
- Most bulbs don’t like a “wet basement.”
Choose a well-drained location.
- Match the sun exposure of the location
to the sun needs of the bulb. Some bulbs
such as tulips do best in full sun. Others,
like daffodils, will grow in partial shade.
- To break up clay soil, improve drainage
and add nutrients, mix in composted
organic matter (shredded leaves, grass
clippings and garden cuttings that have
decomposed) and a little coarse sand.
- Store bulbs in paper bags, not plastic, in
a cool, dry, ventilated place until you are
ready to plant them.
- For a nice display, plant bulbs in masses,
not single lines or isolated bulbs.
- To plant a large bed, dig it up to a depth
of 12 inches, then mix compost into the
soil to provide good nutrients and aera-tion
for the roots.
- General rule of thumb—plant bulbs at a
depth two and one-half to three times
their height. For example, plant a tulip
bulb that is two inches tall about five to
six inches deep.
- Wear gloves to plant bulbs, especially
hyacinths, which when dry have fine,
needle-like crystals that will make your
- Fertilize with a balanced fertilizer (e.g.,
10-10-10, or 10% nitrogen, 10% phos-phorus,
10% potassium) three times: in
the fall, in the spring when bulbs first
sprout and again after they flower.
- Bulbs need water in the winter, particu-larly
during a dry winter.
After bulbs bloom, cut the spent flowers.
Allow the foliage to die back naturally. Do
not braid or knot the foliage. Most bulbs
need at least a month after bloom for the
foliage to gather nutrients through photo-synthesis
to store as energy for beautiful
blooms next year.