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Growing Daffodils and Tulips
Even if you’ve never gardened before, you’ll find that growing daffodils and tulips is super easy, and the return for a little effort is weeks of stunning flowers in bloom. But in order for bulbs to bloom in spring, they must be planted in fall.
Choosing which Daffodils and Tulips to Grow
Tulips look most striking when planted close together in large groups.
There are thousands of varieties of daffodils (also called narcissus) and tulips. They come in a huge range of colors and shapes, so you can experiment with different color combinations. And that experimentation doesn’t have to be expensive — although aficionados can spend hundreds of dollars for a single bulb of a rare and coveted variety, you can pick up a bag of 50 bulbs for about $15.
Here are a few pointers to help you make your selection.
Bloom time. The many different varieties of daffodils and tulips are grouped by when they bloom: early spring, mid-spring and late spring. By growing varieties from each group, you can enjoy flowers for up to three months.
Height. Bulbs are most striking when planted in large groups. If you mix different varieties in the same group, choose ones that are similar in height.
Longevity. Most species daffodils (think of a species daffodil as a purebred) and hybrid daffodils (a cross of two species) multiply year after year, which is referred to as naturalizing. Species tulips naturalize too, but most hybrid tulips become weaker each year and usually die out completely in about three years. For that reason, many people plant new tulips each year. If you don’t want the hassle or expense, stick with daffodils and species tulips.
Hardiness zone. Daffodil and tulip bulbs need at least two months of cold temperatures to bloom well. In much of the US, winter takes care of the chilling requirement. In regions with warm winters — USDA zone 8 and warmer — chill bulbs in the refrigerator at 40 degrees for 60 days or at 50 degrees for 120 days.
Deer. Deer eat tulips, but don’t care for daffodils. If deer dine in your garden often, opt for daffodils.
When to Plant
Ideally, you should plant bulbs about 6 weeks before winter temperatures arrive for good, so the roots have time to become established. But don’t plant too early, because bulbs can rot in warm soil. A good guideline is to plant when night temperatures stay between 40 to 50 degrees. That’s usually mid-September in USDA hardiness zone 3, October in zones 4 through 6 and November in zone 7. But if you miss that time slot, you can still plant them until the ground is too frozen to dig.
How to Plant
Daffodils come in shades of yellow, white and coral.
1. Know the design basics. The biggest mistake new gardeners make is to plant too few bulbs near each other. For the best effect, plant at least seven of the same variety in a group. You can use more bulbs in each group, or plant several small groups adjacent to each other. The adjacent groups can be the same variety, or a different variety of a complementary color.
2. Choose a location. Because trees have few leaves when bulbs bloom, shade isn’t an issue. Just avoid soggy areas, where the bulbs are prone to rotting.
3. Dig. You can dig a hole for each bulb, which you want to do if you’re tucking them into an existing flower garden. If you’re doing a mass planting of just bulbs, excavate a flat-bottomed garden bed to accommodate multiple bulbs.
The instructions that come with the bulbs tell you how deep to plant them. The rule of thumb for spring-flowering bulbs is to plant them two or three times deeper than the height of the bulb. For tulips and daffodils, that guideline translates to about 8 inches deep, measuring from the bottom of the bulb. If your soil is sandy or your winters are exceptionally cold, plant them about an inch deeper to protect them from freezing.
4. Plant. If you dug a hole for each bulb, tuck it into the hole and cover it with soil. If you dug a bed, nestle each bulb into the floor of the planting bed and then cover the bulbs with soil. Plant the pointy end up, wide end down. If you can’t tell which is which, plant the bulb on its side — gravity triggers a hormone that tells the roots and shoot which way to go.
If you want to protect bulbs from hungry burrowing and digging animals, plant the bulbs in a wire cage. You can buy a bulb cage or make one from wide-mesh hardware cloth. The roots grow through the cage, but animals can’t chew through the wire.
You don’t have to add fertilizer to the hole or bed when you plant. The bulb stores the food the flower needs to start growing in spring.
5. Water. Slowly soak the new planting with enough water to wet the soil to a little below the bulb. To check how deep the water has gone, use a spade to cut out a deep slice of soil nearby.
6. Mulch late if you mulch at all. Bulbs planted at the right depth don’t need mulch to keep them from getting too cold. But if you need to mulch perennials growing in the same bed, wait until the ground has frozen. The goal of mulch isn’t to keep the ground from freezing, but to keep it frozen during freak late winter warm spells that can cause frost heaving.