I bet every spring you see container gardens brimming with colorful flowers like tulips, narcissus and muscari, and wish you had thought ahead to plant some yourself. If you haven't yet, do it now when the selection of fall bulbs is good, and the time to plant is upon us. Here are tips about how to plant container gardens with spring-flowering bulbs.
Container gardens add lots of color to the spring garden, creating focal points in the landscape. Because they're portable, they can be placed in the right spots to welcome visitors, brighten seating areas, and add drama to borders.
Any fall bulb is good for container gardens, but your choice may depend on personal preference, bloom time, ease of care, and climate zone. Personal preference is entirely up to you. Some gardeners remember their favorites from childhood, and like re-living those days. Others get excited about the newest plant cultivars. Some gardeners choose color themes they like best, or try to emulate gardens they've enjoyed while traveling. No matter the reason, there are hundreds of species and cultivars to satisfy any preference.
Bloom time varies, and that's a good thing. Some, like crocuses and winter aconite, peep from under melting snow. Others, such as various narcissus and tulip cultivars, bloom early, mid-season or late. With a little planning, container gardens can be planted to provide delightful color all spring. Choose bulbs with varying bloom times for succession of color. When some containers are spent, others can begin their show.
Apart from proper watering and weeding, ease of care can be as simple as emptying out spent bulbs and throwing them away. Many bulbs, though, can be transplanted in the garden, naturalized in the lawn, border or shade garden.
Some bulbs thrive in many parts of the country, but may require special treatment to bloom in warmer regions. This is where climate zone influences your decisions. Tulips, for example, do not receive enough chilling in southern zones, so must be chilled artificially before planting. Because they will not thrive when transplanted in warm climate gardens, they are best treated as annuals and thrown away after blooming. (I know it might hurt your feelings, but you'll get over it.) On the other hand, if you plan to perennialize your bulbs in the garden, you must choose those that will succeed in your zone.
Fall planting time may vary depending on the climate zone, but is best done before first frost. It's very important that the bulbs be planted while firm and fresh. Those left sitting about until the end of the season may rot before they go in the ground. By the way, if you must store them awhile, keep them in a cool, dark place. If you must chill them artificially in the refrigerator before planting (tulips and hyacinths, for example), do not chill them in the presence of fruit. Ripening fruit gives off ethylene that will gas your bulbs and inhibit flowering.
Choose durable containers that will not split or crack in colder regions. Stone, glazed stoneware, concrete, cast iron, fiberglass and plastic will do. Southern gardeners may use terracotta. Containers must also provide good drainage. They need not be large to hold lots of bulbs for bulbs can be planted closer in containers than in the ground. Container depth, on the other hand, depends on your bulbs' requirements. They should be deep enough to allow for the roots to grow downward with space left over. If roots grow to the bottom of the pot, the bulbs will probably be forced upward and out of the mix.
If planting large bulbs such as some daffodils, figure about 1 inch of pot diameter per bulb. That would be a 24-inch diameter pot for 24 bulbs. Twice as many smaller bulbs such as tulips and jonquils will fit in the 24-inch pot, and you might stuff 4 times as many minor bulbs in it. If planting bulbs of different types in the same container, choose those that bloom at the same time.
Use a high-quality, sphagnum-based potting mix. Better mixes will also contain vermiculite or perlite, and some fertilizer. You may also make your own or amend commercial types. Composted chicken manure, available at garden centers, is a popular additive. Do not use native soil straight out of your garden because it will lack necessary drainage qualities for container gardens.
Plant your bulbs the same depth in the container as you would in the ground: 1-1/2 to 2 times as deep as the bulb diameter. Measure planting depth from the bottom of the hole. Another way to plant correctly is to measure from 1/2 inch below the pot rim downward to the proper depth. Mark the spot. Put enough potting mix in the container to the correct planting level, place bulbs upright on the mix, then add more mix to 1/2 inch below the rim.
If planting bulbs of different sizes, you'll place them at different depths. Following the same procedure, place the large bulbs on the lowest level, add planting mix to the proper level for the smaller bulbs, place them on the surface, and fill the container to 1/2 inch below the rim.
Water the container thoroughly after planting, then periodically thereafter as needed. Bulbs should never sit in soggy soil. You'd think that they would get enough moisture with winter rains and snow, but it's not always the case. Check the moisture level occasionally. Smaller containers, and terracotta ones, will dry quicker than others.
Face it, planted bulb containers aren't very attractive during the winter. It's best to store them out of sight. There's also the possibility that extreme cold may damage the bulbs for those in containers are more exposed than bulbs in the ground. I suggest grouping them together, burying them in sawdust, or surrounding them with bales of straw. Put your containers on display in the spring when the foliage or flowers are starting to emerge.
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