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Container Gardening with Fall-Planted Bulbs

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This planter has been layered with bulbs, which ensures a longer season of bloom.

If you are short on garden space or do not have access to a garden, you can still enjoy the beauty of spring-flowering bulbs. Most spring-flowering bulbs can be grown in a container as well as in the garden. To be successful requires some special attention, but the colorful spring results are well worth the effort. The one essential step is to expose the potted bulbs to at least 12 weeks of temperatures between 32 and 45 degrees F.

You can choose your own bulbs, or, to make things simple, you can use Dutch Gardens' Bulb Beds for Pots. The planting trays are made to fit a 10- to 12-in. pot.

Choosing a Container: The size of container that you use should be determined by the number of bulbs you want to plant. Regardless of the diameter of the pot, we recommend using a container that is at least 8 inches deep. Make sure the container has drainage holes—on the sides rather than the bottom if possible—so excess water can drain and roots won't get waterlogged. Self-watering pots are not recommended for growing spring-blooming bulbs.

Choosing a Potting Mix: Once you have chosen a container, you are ready to select a soil mix. Soil for container-grown plants should be light and friable, well drained and moisture-retentive. Garden soil is much too dense and can introduce disease and insect problems. Your bulbs will grow best in a soilless blend comprised of milled sphagnum moss and vermiculite or perlite, with the addition of some finished compost.

Drainage: When spring-blooming bulbs fail to flower, it's most often because the bulbs have been too wet during the winter. To ensure good drainage, we recommend lining the bottom of your container with an inch or two of stones or pieces of broken pots. Make sure that excess moisture can drain away so the pot is never in standing water.

Planting

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Layered bulbs

Start by placing several inches of potting mix on top of the drainage material. Big bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, should be planted 6 inches deep. Smaller bulbs, such as crocuses and muscari, need to be about 3 inches below the soil surface. Place enough soil on the bottom of your container to allow for the proper planting depth of your bulbs, taking into account that the finished soil surface should be about 1-inch below the top of the pot.

If you will be planting more than one type of bulb in the same container, plant the bulbs with the deepest planting requirement first (tulips and daffodils), followed by an inch of two of potting soil. Then add the bulbs that have shallower planting requirements (crocus and muscari). This planting technique, called layering, will provide you with a succession of blooms and give your container a very full look.

Watering: After planting, water the container thoroughly. Don't allow the soil to dry out completely during the winter. If you don't receive enough rain to moisten the soil or if you are storing the container in a covered area, such as a shed or garage, water the container regularly enough to maintain "barely moist" soil-about once a month.

Cold Protection & Cold Treatment: For proper flower formation, spring-blooming bulbs must be exposed to a minimum of 12 weeks of temperatures below 45 degrees F. If you are growing spring-blooming bulbs in containers, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • If you live in an area of the country where winter temperatures regularly fall below 32 degrees F, (zones 2 through 5), you will need to protect your container-grown bulbs from freezing. They will do best when stored in a location that remains at 32 to 45 degrees F for at least 12 weeks (longer is fine). You may find that you can provide these conditions in an attached garage or unheated basement.
  • If you live in an area of the country where winter temperatures typically do not fall below 32 degrees F, but will remain at or below 45 degrees F. for at least 12 weeks (zone 6 through 7), you can leave your container outside with no special attention.
  • If you live in an area of the country where winters are mild and frosts are rare (zones 8 through 10), you will need to provide an artificial winter for your container-grown bulbs. The most reliable technique is to store the container in your refrigerator for the 12-week chilling period. Once the chilling period is complete, you can move the container outdoors.