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Home & Garden: Fall Bulb Planting, still plenty of time for tulips, lilies

A Magic Lily is in bloom in August of 2011. Mary Jane Breitling / West Fargo Pioneer

As we clean up the flowerbeds for the winter, it is time to think of adding bulbs to bloom next spring. It is probably too late now to plant daffodils, as they need a very long time to develop their roots, but there is still plenty of time left to plant tulips and lilies.

A 'bulb' is any plant that stores its complete life cycle in an underground storage structure that has the nutrient reserves to insure the plants' survival. Bulbs or bulb-like plants are usually perennials and have a period of growth and flowering followed by a period of dormancy. Spring bulbs die back to ground level in late spring or early summer. They start to grow again in the fall to flower again the following spring.

There are two kinds of true bulbs. Some have a protective paper-like covering, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths (muscari) and alliums. These bulbs do not have to be planted right after digging, but they should be kept in a cool, dry place until they can be planted. The lily is an example of a bulb that does not have a tunic or protective covering. Lilies must be kept constantly moist before they are planted so that the delicate scales are not injured by drying out. There is a saying that the best time to plant a lily is fifteen minutes after they are dug.

Other structures are bulb-like, for example crocus, which are modified stems called corms. A tuberous root, such as a dahlia, is a fibrous structure with growth buds appearing at the base of the old stem. Tubers are a solid mass of stems and the growth forms from buds or eyes. The potato is a prime example of a tuber. Iris grow from rhizomes, which is a rootstock that thickens and branches forming storage stems. September was an ideal month to divide and replant iris.

When you purchase bulbs, they should feel heavy and be firm and free of cuts. Do not buy any that feel soft or have mold that won't rub off. Look for the term 'top size' on the package as usually the bigger the bulb the better the flowers. Hyacinth bulbs are an exception to the rule, because the big flowers are top heavy and fall down. A good size for hyacinth bulb is 16/17 cm.

Most bulbs like full sun, although there are a few that want shade to part-shade. Plant them in well-drained soil to prevent rotting. Siberian Iris prefers a moist area. Add a good bulb fertilizer or bone meal in the hole or trench, mixing it in a little to prevent burning the bulb. Since bone meal is slow releasing it works very well for bulbs. Water the bulbs in after you are done planting.

The planting depth depends on the size of the bulb. It should be two to three times the width or six to ten inches deep. In heavy clay soil, you can plant more shallowly and in sandy soil, you should plant deeper. There are advantages to planting bulbs deeply. It prevents the setting of so many small bulblets and thus increases the life of the bulbs. It lessens the danger of Botrytis diseases. If the bulbs are deep, it enables you to plant annuals over them. Remember that for most bulbs the pointy side goes up. It is hard to tell on some bulbs but go ahead and push them in and they will be fine.

My neighbor, Otto, had a surprise a few years ago when a lovely pink lily sprang up along the south side of his house. It was a mystery as to what it was and where it came from, as he did not recall planting it. We investigated and decided it is a 'Magic Lily' or Lycoris, a bulb which sends up strappy leaves in the spring and then dies back. In late summer, the plant shoots up a tall stalk and the showy pink trumpet shaped flowers bloom. It is supposed to be a zone six to ten plant, however, his has not only survived, but also multiplied. You may want to plant one this fall for a nice surprise next August.