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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 November.

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 shamrock-like leaves.

Bulb chart

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 skin itch.
  • 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.

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