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Alaskans, go forth and plant spring bulbs

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: September 15, 2017
  • Published September 14, 2017

Spring flowering bulbs are available from the usual sources, so now is obviously the time to buy them. You can put spring bulbs in the ground anytime it can be worked — even after we have had hard frosts — but now is really the best time to plant them.

I say this for two reasons. The first is that these bulbs get a head start on ones planted later, better ensuring that they will make it through the winter and produce blooms. The second is that now is when it is pleasant outside. It is not going to get any warmer, that is for sure. So go out and buy yours and get them in the ground.

You can plant flower bulbs as long as you can work the soil. But early fall is best time. (Getty)

OK, so what kind of spring flowering bulbs can Alaskans plant? When I first started writing this column some 40 years ago, we were much more limited in what could be deemed reliable. Unless you lived in a place where there was a clear guarantee of good snow cover, bulbs such as croci and hyacinth were definitely only for forcing indoors. Heck, even the old standby, the tulip, failed more than once due to lack of enough snow cover.

Thanks to a changing climate and changing practices, croci do pretty much OK, and in the past years some of us have had great success with hyacinth. As we all should be saying, "Global warming? It is our turn now!" The standards here are now scilla, galanthus, tulips, daffodils, muscari and alliums.

The main change in practice is that we now commonly use mulch placed on top of bulbs — at least a couple of inches. This blanket keeps the soil warmer longer and then, once it does freeze, frozen longer. Both are good for your bulbs. And, if you use grass clippings, straw or other "green" mulch, the decay will help supply the right kind of nitrogen for the bulbs.

A big question: how deep to plant the bulbs? The general rule is to plant them three times deeper than the bulb length. Thus, a 2-inch daffodil would be buried so the tip is 6 inches deep. To compensate for being in Alaska with our long, multi-breakup-prone winters, the mulch is added on to that.

Some experts have developed specific depths for each type of bulb if you want to be a bit more specific: alliums should be planted 8 inches deep, crocus down 3 inches, daffodils, tulips and galanthus should go 6 inches down, hyacinth a deep 7 inches with muscari and scilla being buried only 3 inches.

You do not need to feed spring flowering bulbs. They are self-contained units and have everything they need to germinate and then to attract the kinds of microbiology they need to perform. No bone meal is needed and, in fact, after you read "Teaming With Fungi," you realize that bone meal or any other phosphorous feed stops the ever-important mycorrhizae from forming so fungi can feed the bulb, which is the natural way for them to grow and flower.

Next, where to put your bulbs? Some types can actually be planted under trees. Grape hyacinths, crocus, snowdrops, Siberian squill and bluebells can be grown under deciduous trees. Snowdrops should survive a winter under a spruce. The trick is to plant them "thick enough" so they show through the grass and to make sure there is enough moisture. This may require shoveling snow under trees in the spring. Of course, it is often too difficult to dig deep enough through tree roots to make planting under them worthwhile.

Beds of lots are bulbs are the best. I always like to have some bulbs planted so that we can see them from winter windows, those places you sit and read and relax while waiting for all the snow to melt. And, of course, there are the bulbs for putting up and forcing in pots, indoors for indoor mid-winter flowers. For this you have to have a cool, dark crawl space and nine to 14 weeks of time. Don't forget to buy extra bulbs for forcing and do it now as well. You will be rewarded with flowers in the middle of the Alaska winter.

So, go forth. Plant spring flowering bulbs.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Call to action: The Fairbanks-based Cooperative Extension Service recently canceled an Anchorage master gardener class. This is the same Extension Service that unilaterally shuttered the Southcentral Alaska office that served three-fourths of the population of the state in the name of saving money, moving all the expertise we need and relied on, but keeping the office in Fairbanks that serves a tenth of our population and relying on one very busy agent based in Wasilla. The idea was they would serve Anchorage from Fairbanks and Wasilla. Canceling the only master gardener class offered since Julie Riley was forced to move away doesn't sound like serving Anchorage. Outrageous! It is time for Alaska's most powerful group, The Garden Party, to rear its hoe. All gardeners (even if you don't use the service right now) should contact the University of Alaska's Board of Regents today. Spend five minutes and assert your rights to have the service serve you and not itself. We want an agent, if not classes, in Anchorage. Call Don, Lisa and Dan, too (cooperative extension services depend on federal funding).  Jam the switchboards. All the numbers you need are here.

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