You don't have to sink a lot of time and effort to create a sea of color in your garden next spring and summer. Flowering bulbs will do the hard work for you over the winter, gardening experts say, provided you get the bulbs in the ground before the ground freezes solid.
"Bulbs need time to root over the winter," explains gardening authority Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center and editor of Dig the Dirt, a free online newsletter and social blog for gardening fans. To get the best selection of spring and summer bulbs, buy them in early fall, Ferguson says, and then store them in a cool, dry place until late fall.
Most bulb packages and catalogs provide information about a bulb's hardiness zone, a reference to a map by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that shows the average winter temperature range in 11 separate zones in the United States, each 10 degrees warmer or colder than the adjacent zone. Its Canadian counterpart, Natural Resources Canada, has produced a nine-zone planting guide. To see a colorful merged version of both maps, check out the National Gardening Association's "Hardiness Zone Finder" (http://www.garden.org/zipzone), which includes sub-zones that, in some cases, reflect altitude. Pop in your ZIP code and the site will match you to the correct zone.
Almost all bulbs prefer a spot with good drainage, Ferguson says. "Don't plant bulbs in a soggy spot, such as the base of a hill where there will be puddles." She also recommends planting bulbs in clusters, "not in a single file like little soldiers." And once the planting is established, there's no need to divide them, she adds. "They will multiply in place."
What mistakes do novices make when it comes to buying and planting bulbs?
--Buying too far in advance. Some would-be bulb buyers jump the gun, she says, buying bulbs in the spring. That's far too early, Ferguson contends, and you easily could forget about your purchase. Likewise, waiting too long before choosing those bulbs could leave you with less than the best selection.
--Planting bulbs upside down. It's one of the most common mistakes fledgling flower bulb planters make. "You always want to plant with the pointy end up," Ferguson says, but even if you put the bulb in upside down, don't worry. Mother Nature will step in, she says, and "the bulb will right itself."
--Not cleaning up. Make sure to remove any plant debris, such as the scaly bulb tunics and small discards from bulb-scented bags, when you're finished, lest you attract bulb-eating squirrels and other pests who will feast on your efforts. After placing the bulbs, some gardeners place sheets of chicken wire down -- or use wire or fabric bulb cages -- to protect the bulbs.
New bulbs are developed each year, so there's virtually no limit on the types and varieties to choose from, not to mention color and height. Here are some favorites the experts say do well in many zones:
Crocus: This popular early cup-shaped spring flower loves full sun to light shade, producing blooms in violet, lavender, brilliant yellow and white or a bicolor mixture. This herald of the season to come grows to a height of 3 to 6 inches and looks best planted in groups of a dozen or more.
Daffodil: With lots of varieties producing mainly brilliant yellows and whites -- some with trumpets of contrasting colors -- this beautiful spring flower thrives in areas with cold winters, cool springs and cool summers.
Tulip: Its availability in a wide variety of colors and shapes makes the tulip a must-have for every spring garden. Like daffodils, they do best where winters are cold and springs and summers are cool.
Iris: There are some 260 species of this showy plant that can light up a summer garden in an artist's palette of colors. The bearded iris is especially colorful. It blooms in early summer. Some varieties can re-bloom in the fall. Irises love full sun and well-drained soil.
Lily: Lilies will sweep your garden with colors -- e.g., red, orange, gold, pink and white -- from early summer to fall. Most lilies thrive in slightly acidic, well-drained soil and in full sun to light shade.