To bring you the best advice there is on planting flowering bulbs in fall, for this week’s podcast I turned to none other than Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, the renowned mail-order bulb company. Brent’s family has been growing bulbs since 1900 in Gloucester, Virginia, and he is a wealth of knowledge on planting, choosing and maintaining flowering bulbs.
Brent and his wife, Becky, are icons when it comes to flowering bulbs, multiple gold medals awarded from a variety of organizations in the horticultural industry. Brent is a daffodil hybridizer as well as a naturalist who helps other gardeners understand that gardening in an earth-friendly way benefits the bees, birds and butterflies as well as the plants in the garden while preserving the earth for future generations.
For a quick-reference guide on selecting, planting and caring for fall-planted flowering bulbs, I have prepared a free resource for you: Fall Bulbs 101. You can download this guide to learn everything you need to know to grow flowers from bulbs successfully.
A Short History of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs
Brent says the first imported flowering bulbs in the New World came with women who took ships here and wanted to bring something from home. Because only dormant plants could survive the journey, bulbs made the most sense. Some of those bulbs were found to be quite well suited to the growing conditions and the soil, such as daffodils, which have been grown in North America since colonial times.
When Brent’s grandfather Charles first ate a cantaloupe, it was so good that he traced it to its source and bought a plantation in the Tidewater region of Virginia. There, he noticed women picking daffodils to bring to the steamboat landing, where the flowers would be shipped to Baltimore and New York to be sold on street corners.
Those were little, wild daffodils that had been brought over from Spain, France and England. Charles decided he would bring over modern daffodil hybrids, such as King Alfred, Carlton and Emperor. The hybrids grew well in the sandy Chesapeake Bay soils, and he began to sell bulbs to local farmers. By the time of the Great Depression, Gloucester and Mathews counties grew more daffodils than anywhere in the country. “It brought good money into people’s pockets in hard times,” Brent says.
Brent’s father, George, would later take over the family bulb business after working in the tobacco industry in China. George partnered with a Dutch company that could no longer ship its bulbs to the United States over concerns about nematodes. The family business grew to 1,500 acres of daffodil production with 1,500 varieties of daffodils in its catalog.
Brent grew up picking flowers on the family farm but he got out of the business for a while to run a summer camp for kids. When his mother, Katie, was ready to sell it, Brent was drawn back in. He bought the business in 1972, and he married Becky in 1979. They have run the business together ever since.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Brent and Becky moved the growing operation to a lake bottom in Holland. They contract with growers there for production. The bulbs are processed there as well and then distributed to consumers from their base in Virginia.
Brent and Becky still have an 8-acre teaching garden in Virginia where they trial new varieties.
Brent has lectured in 48 states and he and Becky have written a number of books together, including “Daffodils for North American Gardens” and “Tulips: For North American Gardens.” Brent is also a photographer and has donated many of his images to the Smithsonian Institution and plans to donate more to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Brent and Becky have different gardening styles and they garden at different times of day. Becky is a schoolteacher and musician, and well organized. “She gardens in planned ways,” Brent says. “I’m dyslexic and I have attention deficit and I’m a plant collector. I put everything in bed together. She calls me an ‘orgy gardener.’”
Today, their son, Jay, is the general manager of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs and their daughter-in-law, Denise, runs the shop and special events. The business’s motto is “Plant bulbs and harvest smiles.”
How to Pick a Daffodil
To pick a daffodil, run your finger down the stem, put your thumb on the opposite side, and pull up to snap the stem. Never cut the stem, Brent says. Pulling the stem off the bulb will result in a stem that holds water better and flowers that last longer in a vase.
Why Add Flowering Bulbs to Our Landscapes
“Bulbs are amazing perennial plants,” Brent says. “And most people don’t think of them in that light, but when planted in the proper location, they come back year after year. They are mostly seasonal interests. They don’t last all year long in bloom or in foliage, but seasonally, they come and have a big bang in the spring.”
Some flowering bulbs are triggered to grow by day length, while others are triggered by warming soiling. “Just as soon as conditions are right, they pop out of the ground very quickly,” Brent says.
Brent points out that yellow is the first color that the eye separates out of the spectrum. That’s why yellow daffodils, just like school buses, immediately catch our eye.
“Daffodils come in many shapes and colors, and fragrance is another added value that often we don’t think about,” Brent says.
Brent and Becky have bulbs in bloom in their landscape 12 months a year. In December and January, it’s small blooms such as crocuses and snowdrops, which pollinators flock to.
Taste Makes a Difference
Brent notes that daffodil pollen is unfortunately distasteful to most insects, but a big upside is that daffodils are practically critter-proof. Deer, rabbits and voles do not like daffodil flowers or bulbs. In fact, critters generally leave alone all members of the Amaryllidaceae family, which includes amaryllis, daffodils, snowdrops and snowflakes.
Meanwhile, tulips have sweet-tasting pollen and are visited by all kinds of pollinators. But tulips are not deer-resistant, so an animal repellent spray will be needed.
The alkaloids in the amaryllis plant family not only taste terrible but render somewhat of narcotic stupor, Brent explains. In fact, that’s why the daffodil genus is named Narcissus. Narcissus comes from the Greek word “narco,” for intoxicated.
Growing Bulbs in a Yard’ — But Not in a ‘Lawn’
Little bulbs can grow among grass in a yard but not in a lawn, Brent says. He describes the difference like this: A lawn has a mindless irrigation system and is treated with chemicals, such as preemergent herbicides.
If growing little bulbs in a yard, mow the grass to 3.5 inches high. Not only will the grass grow deeper roots and be more drought tolerant, the bulb foliage will have the chance to mature. Crocuses, Galanthus (snowdrops), and Chionodoxa (glory of the snow) are good candidates for your yard.
Why It’s Important to Plant Daffodils in Full Sun
When a daffodil bulb is planted in fall, the following spring the flower grows by using the energy stored in the bulb. To recharge the bulbs for the following year, the foliage collects sunlight. That means a daffodil planted in shade will be beautiful the first year but struggle the second year.
“The leaves of the daffodils are solar collectors, and they need to gather that sunlight to recharge the batteries — the bulbs,” Brent says.
In early spring when the flowers bloom, there may be no leaves on the surrounding trees, and the plants get plenty of light for a time. But then once the flowers are spent and only the foliage remains, the trees fill in and the foliage is no longer collecting sunlight.
“If the leaves come on the trees and block that light a while, you’re not going to get enough light to fully recharge the batteries,” Brent says.
After the flowers finish blooming, the foliage needs at least eight weeks to mature. Once the leaves turn yellow, the bulbs are dormant and the foliage is safe to cut. Never bunch the foliage in knots or put rubber bands around it, Brent advises. Tying foliage together can lead to disease.
Brent also notes that almost all bulbs prefer to sleep in a dry bed. If the bulbs are in wet soil, they will be stressed and can get Fusarium oxysporum, a fungal disease. Grass and other ground covers plus perennials and annuals are good companion plants for bulbs because they will use the moisture in soil, keeping the bulbs dry.
When and How to Plant Flowering Bulbs
For bulbs, the ideal planting time is right around the first frost date. So where Brent lives in Virginia, planting can begin at the end of October and continue until Christmas. He notes that it is important to get planting done before the ground freezes so the bulbs have time to grow roots. When bulbs start making roots, their cellular structure changes and becomes elastic. “It’s almost like it has antifreeze,” Brent says.
If you are burying bulbs on the late side of your window of opportunity, apply water at planting time and add mulch to the top of the soil. The mulch won’t warm the soil, but it will prevent the soil from freezing for some time. The bulbs will form roots in about two weeks. For mulch, Brent likes to use pine needles (aka pine tags and pine shats) and well-shredded bark. That organic mulch will also suppress weeds and feed the microbes in soil, eventually turning into humus.
Bulbs root best when the soil temperature is between 50° and 60°. Rather than relying on the air temperature as an indicator, get an accurate reading using a soil thermometer.
Always plant bulbs with the pointy end toward the sky. Plant to a depth of three times the bulb’s height. For instance, a bulb that is 2 inches tall should be planted 6 inches deep. Space bulbs three times their width apart if planting in the garden. In a container, bulbs can be planted more densely.
For warm regions like in Florida, Brent and Becky’s Bulbs sells pre-cooled bulbs that were kept at 35° before being shipped in December. The bulbs need that cold vernalization to trigger them to bloom, Brent says.
Let’s say you’d like to plant a lot of bulbs. Well, there is a machine that can lift 6 inches of turf and plant up to 30,000 bulbs or 1,000 square feet an hour.
The No-Holes Method of Planting Bulbs
Brent uses a template made from wire to ensure that daffodil or tulip bulbs are adequately spaced. He puts down a layer of compost on top of the soil, marks it with the template, puts a bulb on each square, and comes back around with compost, and then applies mulch to the top.
“Bulbs appreciate the little elevated bed,” Brent says. “You have some better drainage when we have too much moisture.”
How to Prepare Soil and Fertilize Bulbs
I’ve mentioned the importance of full exposure to sunlight to charge bulbs, but the other way to ensure healthy bulbs and great blooms is to feed the soil. Amending soil with compost and humus feeds the microbes in soil that turn minerals into plant-available nutrients. That’s all bulbs really need from us, besides maybe adding a few additional trace minerals.
Brent no longer uses chemical fertilizers. These chemicals give a quick boost to plants but don’t last. “If you give it a fast-acting chemical, you’ve got to do it again and again and again,” Brent says. He will sometimes use a times-release organic fertilizer, such as Espoma Bulb-tone.
Brent warns to never put fertilizer in the planting hole with the bulb. Top dress the soil after the bulb’s been buried. Chemical fertilizers especially pose the risk of burning the roots of bulbs, which can also make them vulnerable to disease.
How to Plan a Sequence of Blooms
Because bulbs flower at different times of year, there are strategies that can be employed for continuous blooms in the garden. For instance, bulbs that bloom sequentially can be planted in the same hole.
At the bottom of the planting hole, place large, late-blooming bulbs. Cover them with soil and then place a layer of medium-sized, mid-season bulbs. Use small, early bloomers as the top-most layer of bulbs.
Daffodils and daylilies work well together because the daylilies will cover up the daffodil foliage just as the daffodils are going dormant, and they will use up moisture in soil so the dormant daffodil bulbs stay dry.
You can also create a sequence of blooms in conjunction with the perennials in your garden. Interplant bulbs that will flower just before the perennials go into bloom.
How to Create a Living Flower Arrangement
Brent and Becky’s Bulbs offers a booklet on how to create “living flower arrangements” in containers using sequential bulbs. Five rings of bulbs are planted in the same pot with a color theme, like red, white, and blue; pink, white, and purple; yellow, red, and orange; or all white.
There needs to be enough potting mix at the bottom of the pot for the roots, and enough room above the bulbs to bury them adequately.
A pot could start with three daffodils planted shoulder-to-shoulder, with five tulip bulbs planted in a ring around them. Follow the tulips with a ring of hyacinths, and then a ring of grape hyacinths. Finish the outer edge with anemones, burying the bulbs in potting mix, and top off with organic mulch. These types of bulbs will all flower the following spring at the same time for a stunning display.
Do not leave a container in a warm spot such as a south-facing patio for the winter. Keep it cool on the north side of a building, for instance. Then in the spring, when it is time for the bulbs to wake up, the containers can be moved to a sunny patio or deck.
Tulips Are Typically Annuals
Tulips come from high mountain deserts in Asia, Brent notes. They have cold winters, hot, dry summers and plenty of moisture in the spring. In North America, tulips just won’t perennialize readily the way that daffodils often do. Most tulips should be treated as annuals and replanted frequently.
Some varieties are more likely than others to give a second or third season of blooms. Darwin hybrid tulips are one variety to look for if perennial tulips are your desire.
What to Know About the Seeds of Flowering Bulbs
Almost all flowers grown from bulbs have the potential to reseed themselves, but it takes five to seven years to get from seed to bloom. That’s why we plant tulips and daffodils from bulbs rather than seeds.
When a bloom is finished, deadhead it. If left alone, the flowers will set seed, and the plant will put about 30% of its energy into producing those seeds. It’s better if the plant puts that energy into the bulbs than into seeds you don’t need.
Another important thing to know is that some hybrid flowers are sterile. That means they will not produce viable seed.
How to Protect Bulbs From Critters
Bulbs that are labeled deer and rabbit resistant, such as daffodils and alliums, should be mostly unbothered by critters, including voles. Bulbs that critters consider tasty, such as tulips, should be treated with a repellent such as Plantskydd or with Deer Off. Deer Off is available as refillable stakes placed in the ground or as a spray, which is now sold under the name Critter Ridder Deer and Rabbit Repellent.
Voles love tulip and crocus bulbs. The bulbs themselves can be treated with Plantskydd to prevent vole damage. Let Plantskydd dry on the bulb, and it will mask the smell of the bulbs. Crocuses smell like nuts, so applying Plantskydd will stop squirrels from digging them up.
How to Revive a Clump of Daffodils
Unless a bulb had two noses, you can expect a single daffodil bulb to produce one bloom in the first year. In the second year, it will grow a daughter bulb that produces a second bloom. This will keep repeating if the garden has ideal conditions, so that one bulb will become two, then four, then eight, then 16, and so on.
A clump of daffodils can remain in place in full sunlight for more than 100 years when organic matter is routinely added to the soil. But if you have big clumps of daffodils and not many blooms, you need to intervene. Brent says that before the leaves die — when they are just beginning to yellow — lift the whole clump, and shake the soil off. You’ll find many quarter-sized bulbs, rather than the big bulbs required for big blooms.
Separate these tiny bulbs and plant them in full sun in soil that’s been amended with compost.
How to Store Bulbs
If you have dug up bulbs in spring or summer and don’t intend to replant them right away, they need to be stored properly to remain viable.
Do not wash bulbs that you have dug up. Keeping the bulbs dry is key. To that end, there needs to be plenty of air movement around the bulbs. Do not keep them in a sealed container such as a zip-lock bag or a plastic tub. Brent likes to use old grapefruit bags. “Those bulbs breathe just like we do,” he says.
Do not store bulbs in a cooler. The warmth of summer is needed for next year’s bud to develop inside the bulb.
When the first frost rolls around in fall, it’s time to take the bulbs out of storage and plant.
How to Tell If a Bulb Is Still Viable
A good bulb will be about the weight of a golf ball. If a bulb is the same size but weighs closer to a ping pong ball, it has lost its moisture and is no longer viable. A papery feeling is another indicator a bulb is no good. Brown and mushy are other bad signs.
You may also notice basal rot, aka bulb rot, which can be caused by Fusarium or other pathogens.
When to Order Flowering Bulbs
The best time to pick out the flowering bulbs that you would like to have in your garden is when all of your neighbors’ bulbs are in bloom. Brant also recommends visiting your local botanic garden to see what’s on display.
To ensure fall delivery, order bulbs in spring. If you wait, the bulbs you want may be sold out. Brent notes that there is a shortage of bulbs this year.
I hope you learned something about planting flowering bulbs in fall from my conversation with Brent Heath. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by clicking the Play button on the green bar near the top of this post.
What unanswered questions do you have concerning planting flowering bulbs? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.