October 21, 2012

Planting Bulbs, and Testing New Tools


One never regrets planting bulbs, but one typically regrets not planting them once spring arrives. It's not too late to prepare your garden for spectacular displays of bulbs, as most bulb catalogs are starting their sale period, and although many good varieties might be sold out, values abound. Plus, don't forget that you can plant bulbs right up until the ground freezes - I have planted bulbs as late as early December in some years - not optimal, but sometimes one can't resist a close out sale! And in the spring, no one knows any better.

We plant hundreds of bulbs, and each year, I order and order varieties, never really thinking about how I am going to plant them all. When the arrive, they often sit on the back porch, where it is cold ( as many bulbs will abort internal flower buds if kept at room temperature too late, which is why one must be careful buying bulbs from a super market), and these boxes and bags of bulbs pile up waiting for a free moment ( as if I have any) to plant them.  

This year I ordered many bulbs from Colorblends, and as a first time customer, I was very impressed. As usual, I was late in placing my order, and many of the bulbs I really wanted were sold out - like the parrot tulips, but I found a few blended tulip mixtures that I liked, and few hundred muscari, scilla and crocus ( don't ask). I placed my order this past Tuesday night after returning from Pittsburgh, and since I knew that I was going to be in San Fransisco for 6 days, I wanted to take that free night to catch up of ordering bulbs. I was hoping to plant today, Sunday as my flight was to come in at midnight last night, but the bulbs arrived Thursday, a day and a half after I ordered them. Joy.


 No matter how many bulbs I order, sometime thousands - all seem to get planted over time, but I am rather old school with my methods, relying on a trowel, shovel or pitch fork to clear away soil, and to jab into the ground, often un-elegantly sliding a few narcissus or tulips under a spade as I lift it, and I call it a day. Bulbs are forgiving creatures, self-adjusting themselves at the proper height after a season of growing, and all they ask of us is to be planted early, and left alone. 

A gentleman who owns and invented a device which he called PRO PLUGGER, contacted me a while back as asked if I might want to try a PRO PLUGGER. You can check out the website here, it seems to be marketed for those who want to make plugs - lawn plugs in particular, something I will need to do for our front lawn which is impossible to seed, but that will need to wait until spring. Once the box arrived, I opened it and thought - this will be excellent for planting bulbs. And, in the end, it was more than wonderful - it was a time saver, a back saver and a relationship saver since I could now take Joe and the dogs for a long-promised ride to the orchard. 

You can see a great video about how they plant bulbs with the Pro Plugger here.
The Pro Plugger took a little getting used to ( I didn't know how to get the soil out of it, but quickly figured out that it had to be turned upside down each time, as the tip is tapered.

The PRO PLUGGER made planting bulbs fast and easy. The best part was that I could lay out a grid of bulbs quickly, such as this border of 200 Darwin tulips which I am planting in a mix of orange and pink. Tulips look best en masse, planted in tidy rows along boxwood hedges such as here, below an espaliered apple hedge in front of the greenhouse. The PRO PLUGGER was not easy at first- but I quickly realized that I needed to pull away the composted mulch layer to expose the soil below. Once I did this, the task was easy, and I have a grid of 300 holes punched into the ground in 15 minutes.

Excess soil as plug, are deposited into a greenhouse flat. This soil I used later to fill in the holes over the tulips.

Once a grid of holes is completely prepared, I can start the easier part of dropping in the tulip bulbs.

Smaller bulbs such as Muscari require only a classic dibble stick. My plan here? To plant a carpet of blue lesser bulbs naturalized under the pleached hornbeam hedge, which is bare in the spring.

The second place where we are planting bulbs in volume is along the long walk leading out back to the chickens. I had been training a pleached hedge of hornbeams along one side of the walk for about 12 years now, and underneath the hedge, which is deciduous, the soil has been bare. I always imagined drifts of golden narcissus or other bulbs here for a long time, but I opted for a sea of Primula elatior - the Cowslip primrose, which we have been growing here for a few years. The primula are starting to decline, so it was time for something new.

I decided to plant 300 hundred muscari, or Grape Hyacinths, mixed with other small, lesser flowering blue bulbs. So 300 Chinodoxa and 300 Scilla siberica have been added. To achieve the proper effect, all of these tiny bulbs need to be planted at the same time, otherwise, one will not be able to see where one species is planted, when planting the second species, and bulbs can get damaged. Also, when layed out on the surface of the ground, it is easy to adjust the layout a bit, ensuring proper spacing and distribution. It seems like a big task, but this only took an hour or so.

The dibble stick has a metal tip, which makes piercing a hold near stones or at the base of this hornbeam, easier. Bulbs are mixed ahead of time in a large flat, and then spread on the ground in a random pattern. Not truly naturalized, this is often the method most gardeners refer to when speaking about naturalizing. Bulbs are tossed onto the prepared ground, and then planted wherever they fall, which creates a more natural pattern.

It was a busy Sunday, with nearly 1200 bulbs planted in one day, but we will forget about the blisters and soiled knees once spring arrives.


  1. Chris7:21 PM

    Hello, I love your blog, very informative and inspiring. Do you know the variety of boxwood you have in the second picture. they look amazing and I am thinking of putting in a small border of them. Thanks!

  2. Wow,1200 bulbs! My hat's off to you!

  3. I know, a few too many. I will be sore tomorrow ( as if I went to the gym!), and of course, that nasty blister!

  4. Anonymous4:17 PM


    Just planted five hundred tulip bulbs so I understand all too well about blisters, I love the parrot tulips too, have you planted yours deeper than suggested to deter the bulb from forming bulblets, I have this year to see if it improves the cut flowers.


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