It’s Time to Plan and Plant for Spring Flowers
As autumn arrives, the gardener’s attention typically turns to mums, pansies and other fall favorites. But this is also the perfect time to plant spring bulbs and spring-flowering perennials. In fact, spring bulbs need
to go through the cold winter weather in order to bloom in the spring. If you’ve had problems with pesky squirrels eating your tulip bulbs, or visions of a spring-blooming garden that didn’t work out as planned, local experts have the solutions.
Designing a Spring Garden
When planning for a spring garden, it helps to think of spring as an entire season. Different spring bulbs and perennials bloom at different times, from early spring when the snow is still on the ground to late spring when you can begin planting annuals. Even one type of flower, such as tulips, offers varieties that bloom early-, mid- or late-season. For a continual show, you’ll want to select plants that bloom successively throughout the spring.
When designing a garden bed, bear in mind the specific needs of each type of bulb or plant, its size and its bloom time. Does it need sun or shade, dry or moist soil? Put plants with the same needs together in the right spot.
“When planting a perennial bed on a fence line, put plants that are low in front and high plants in the back. If the bed is out in the open, put the high plants in the middle and lower plants in front so that everything cascades down to the edge,” advises Richard Hentschel, horticulture educator for University of Illinois Extension in DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. To avoid a lonely row of tulips or daffodils, he suggests planting in masses. “Plant in odd numbers in groups of three, five or seven,” he says. “For a perennial bed, you want all these groups to grow together. Otherwise, you’re forever weeding.”
Some spring bloomers, such as columbine and bleeding heart, are ephemeral, meaning they die back quickly. “They don’t live all summer,” says Hentschel. “That’s just their nature. They are going to go away.” It’s best to pair ephemerals with plants that will last longer in the garden. “Early spring ephemerals are native plants like bloodroot, trout lilies and Virginia bluebells,” says Samantha Peckham, perennial garden supervisor for Cantigny Park in Winfield. “They bloom very early and then go dormant. They are nice companion plants for hostas and grasses.”
The Cantigny gardens are undergoing a major renovation this fall, which should result in an amazing display of flowers come late March or early April, depending on the weather. “We will be incorporating a lot of bulbs,” Peckham says. “We will have a long perennial border that we will plant this fall with crocus and daffodils and another section with a big planting of tulips and perennializing bulbs.” Bulbs that multiply naturally are “great for home gardeners. You only have to plant them once.” She favors grape hyacinth for their “pretty, bright indigo blue clusters, which can naturalize in a lawn area,” as well as “scilla and glory of the snow, which work really well under mature trees.”
The Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe will also have a massive bulb display in the spring. “We have thousands of bulbs in the Bulb Garden and plant thousands more every year,” says Helen Bartlett, assistant horticulturist in the Bulb Garden. The best time to visit to see spring bloomers will be April and May into early June.
Although tulips are the stars of the spring garden, Bartlett acknowledges that they can be quite difficult. “In my own personal experience, I would consider them annuals.” In other words, if you want to make sure you have tulips in the spring, don’t depend on last spring’s bulbs, plant new ones. Another option she suggests is to select a “species tulip,” which is a smaller version of the flower with a propensity to bloom for several years running.
When to Plant
October is a good time to plant bulbs. “The soil is still warm and you want bulbs to produce some roots,” says Sharon Yiesla, plant knowledge specialist at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. “We usually don’t have problems with top growth of bulbs. If the soil is cold, the plants may not get established.”
The same holds true for spring-flowering perennials. “There are two schools of thought on planting perennials in the fall,” says Karl Batschke, global products manager for Darwin Perennials, a subsidiary of West Chicago-based Ball Horticulture. “With the cool night temperatures and better rains, it’s a good time for new plants to get established,” particularly lawns, shrubs and trees. Planting perennials, however, can be “hit or miss. When they go to sleep for the winter, they go completely dormant.”
He suggests buying larger perennial plants in two- or three-gallon containers, rather than smaller plants, which have “a lot less root support.”
For spring 2018, Darwin Perennials will be shipping a variety of perennial candytuft, an early spring flowering plant with white blooms, which will have a “longer than typical flowering time.” He also points to Darwin’s Rose Marvel salvia as a spring bloomer with “larger flowers in a deep, rich rose color.”
Hentschel recommends a number of spring-blooming perennials for our area, including rock cress, bergenia, creeping phlox, lungwort and hellebores, otherwise known as Christmas or Lenten rose.
This fall, garden centers will be discounting perennial plants as the growing season draws to a close, so you may find some great bargains.
If you have included perennials in a container planting for the summer, you can replant them in the ground so that they have a better chance of making it through the winter.
For spring planting, when the supply of spring-blooming perennials at garden centers will be larger, Batschke says, “I’ve always used April 15 as a starting date” for planting perennials. “When they see perennials in the local garden center, they’re able to plant them.”
Care and Feeding
To fertilize or not to fertilize is the question. “When planting for the first time, it’s the one and only opportunity to amend the soil and provide nutrients,” says Hentschel. “Adding organic matter as you are planting is very helpful.” Some people like to put bone meal in the ground when planting bulbs, which may not be absolutely necessary.
“A bulb contains everything it needs: energy, foliage, flower and root,” he says. “A rule of thumb is the bigger the bulb, the deeper it goes. Two to three times the diameter of the bulb is the depth it should be planted for permanent plantings.”
“When planting late in the season, it’s important to do a good job with mulch and watering,” advises Peckham. “I really like to use composted leaf mulch.”
Perhaps the biggest threats to spring bulbs are chipmunks and squirrels, which find tulip and crocus bulbs too tasty to resist. “One trick I learned is to get the bulbs in as late as possible, which will help to deter some of the critters,” Peckham says. “I like to use an organic fertilizer, Milorganite. Rodents don’t like the smell.” She suggests digging a hole for the bulb and mixing in Milorganite with the soil, followed by another layer of Milorganite on top of the soil.
Some gardeners go so far as to put chicken wire underneath the soil or a wire mesh on top of the soil to discourage critters from digging down to the bulbs. Colorblends, a wholesale flower bulb company, suggests using cheap window screens on top of the soil, which can serve the same purpose without all the fuss.
Use rocks to anchor the screens, keep them on until the ground freezes hard and then remove them. Any type of barrier needs to be removed before spring to allow the plants to come up through the ground.
Fall is a good time to divide and replant perennials that have become overgrown, as well as naturalizing bulbs like daffodils and plants that grow from corms, tubers and crowns, such as peonies and iris, which have gotten too crowded.
“The most important thing is watering,” says Yiesla of fall plantings or transplants. “You need the roots to be established.”
In the spring, it’s important to keep the foliage on the bulbs until they have bloomed and died back completely, as that process provides the nutrients needed for the next spring’s blooms. When properly designed, planted and maintained, your yard can put on a magnificent spring flower show year after year.
Inspiration and Resources for Spring Blooms
Annual Bulb Sale
The Morton Arboretum, Lisle
Sept. 30 to Oct. 31, while supplies last,
10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Dozens of varieties of Dutch bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, alliums, crocus, fritillaria and more will be on sale in the Arboretum store.
Fall Bulb Festival
Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe
Oct. 6 to 8, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Some
280 varieties of spring bulbs will be available for purchase, including hard-to-find varieties, mums, asters, amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus, along with live music, a harvest market, activities for kids and 20 local vendors of food and other goodies.
Bulb Container Demo
Heinz Brothers Greenhouse, St. Charles
Nov. 12, 1 - 2 p.m. Free.
Call 630 377-6288 to register. See how to plant a beautiful bulb container for spring blooms and learn how to force bulbs indoors and care for them over the winter.
University of Illinois Extension
Visit web.extension.illinois.edu and search on spring bulbs or call a Master Gardener for help.
Cook County: 773 768-7779
DuPage County: 630 955-1123
Kane County: 630 584-6166
Kendall County: 630 553-5823
The Morton Arboretum Plant Clinic
Visit or call 630 719-2424 for help with selecting plants or identifying gardening problems.