Getting the most out of fall-planted bulbs

Bulbs in a display garden near Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.

Flower bulbs delivered by growers are nearly always disease-free, thanks to rigorous industry-imposed inspections at home and abroad.

But consumers play the most important role in quality control: They must buy the best bulbs they can find and then keep them that way.

“It doesn’t matter what you’re buying, a car or a piece of equipment: The better you take care of it and the more you know about it, the better the results,” said Leo Roozen, owner of Washington Bulb Co. Inc. in Mount Vernon, Washington.

“That’s especially true for something you’re growing, like a bulb.”

Shop around before you buy. It’s one thing to purchase bulbs at the right price. It’s quite another to find the best spring-blooming bulbs at the right time of year.

“You need to plant bulbs in cool ground, 55 degrees or lower,” said Tim Schipper, founder and owner of Colorblends, a wholesale bulb company in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“But many retailers want bulbs on their shelves by Labor Day,” he said. “They want that because they only have eight weeks before Halloween and Christmas, and must thin their inventories before the holiday sales season.”

Garden centers are usually more flexible and smarter about when to plant, but competition forces many of them to offer their bulbs early, too, Schipper said.

If you do buy bulbs in late summer or early autumn, then keep them cool, dry and well-ventilated while waiting for the best time to plant.

“Anywhere from 50 to 70 degrees is perfect,” Schipper said. “If you live below the Mason-Dixon line, you can put them in the refrigerator until cool weather arrives. Tulips do well refrigerated. Daffodils don’t need it.”

Additional guidelines for getting better results from fall-planted bulbs:

Find retailers who display their bulbs in cool locations and who haven’t mishandled them by crushing or drying them out. That goes for Internet or mail-order shipments, as well. “Look for a clean, healthy, white fleshy bulb,” Schipper said. “It’s nice if they have some brown skin on them.”

Plant bulbs in well-drained soil where they’ll get plenty of sun. “Don’t put them below the eaves of the house where snow will be falling all winter or by an eave spout where the soil is too wet,” Roozen said. “Also, avoid hillsides where the topsoil is thin. All these things play a factor regarding when or even if they’ll bloom.”

Don’t put bulbs in the ground until the soil cools to 55 degrees. Try to plant them at least four to six weeks before the first hard freeze so their roots can develop.

Plant bulbs with the pointed side up, and place them three times the height of the bulb deep. Add water and fertilizer.

Keep the plants dry after they go dormant in the spring. If you want them to come back the next growing season, don’t braid or cut them until the foliage turns completely yellow or brown, Schipper said.

“People have to get used to a bit of a messy look with daffodil foliage,” he said.