By Deborah Lando / Special to the Triplicate

Is your inner gardener frustrated by the muted shades of winter gloom? As a gardener, color is both form and reason, and the restricted hues of the seasonal slumber can indeed try the patience of an artist dependent on the landscape’s natural palate. It is during these final days of winter that I find solace in Nature’s ingenious design for pre-packaged flowers, the bulb.

These final weeks of vernal anticipation I live vicariously through gardening catalogs replete with seductive imagery of endless bulb varieties, and the knowledge that tulips, hyacinth and crocus from past planting efforts will soon appear in full, predictable splendor.

My continuing love affair with bulb cultivation fuels a yearly reconnaissance for new industry offerings to inspire, while providing the perfect antidote for the late winter doldrums.

Bulbs are an amazingly easy choice for the garden and the sure-fire way to make any gardener look accomplished regardless of experience. One of their better qualities is that they provide a show of color from summer’s beginning into the far reaches of hot August days.

Summer bulb classifications fall into rhizome crops such as canna and agapanthus. Tubers, which include begonias, dahlias and caladiums, are another category. The ‘true summer bulbs’ are Asiatic and Oriental lilies, in addition to corms like crocosmia and gladiolus.

As with anything we place in our gardens, be sure to choose the optimum location and ideal conditions needed prior to planting.

When choosing an area, cross-reference by checking the bulbs label that provides planting instructions. This is key to any bulbs success, as the directions furnished take into account the specialized needs of each variety.

A common denominator I have identified over my years of growing bulbs is the need for rich, well-drained soil with a substantial quantity of compost/hummus. Clay soil retains too much water, which will eventually rot the bulb, tuber, or corm. Be sure to water well once planted and keep the area weed free.

If you are a novice to planting bulbs, it is essential to place the bulb properly in the hole at the required and recommended depth. Be sure to plant roots side down, and pointed side up. If unable to tell which is top or bottom of bulb, corm or tuber, check for dried roots first; that is always the bottom.

As with many tubers that have the shape of a cup, the concave side is usually the top. Some bulbs when purchased have already begun new growth, which can act as an indicator revealing which is top or bottom.

For a dynamic quick-start, I furnish my bulbs with a handful of organic powdered bulb food in each hole prior to their final placement. This nutrition ensures beautiful vegetative growth and glorious flowers.

Recently I purchased a bag of 75 gladiolus that I’ll be putting in the ground as soon as the soil warms and the threat of frost has passed. When reaching maturation, the fully-grown height of these beauties is expected to be 48-60 inches tall. The recommended hole depth is 8 inches.

Due to the extent of size, providing staking at the time of planting is suggested. This provides support for future growth and avoids injury to the bulb later on. Just place a stake in the hole next to the bulb at the time of planting and backfill, covering both bulb and stake together.

As with any bulb, planting in masses, or clusters, is much more appealing in contrast to straight lines, stretched out with a sparse appearance. Another option is to use decorative pots, placing and planting several together for additional eye appeal. However, be cognizant that they will multiply after blooming in a single season and should be divided and repotted prior to the next growth cycle, with additional soil and nutrients requirements.

In our coastal climate, the bulbs typically return year after year as perennials, unless the bulb is considered tropical. Tropical bulbs such as the Alocasia/Colocasia (elephant ear) typically will survive if brought indoors in a greenhouse-like setting during the winter months. I’ve had great success with tropical bulbs and plants by housing them at the first onset of cold temperatures in the fall.

General planting tips

Plant summer bulbs in spring after the ground has thawed and the danger of frost has passed.

After the flowering season, allow foliage to die back naturally, then remove and cut back to promote next years growth.

Bulbs and plants may sprout in the package, which is harmless to the bulb. Do not remove sprout when planting.

Plant in clusters for maximum impact.

An additional plus when planting bulbs is that many are considered deer resistant. When waging a battle in your garden with those pesky eaters it’s comforting to know we can still have color in our yard despite their voracious presence.

Bulbs are truly the gift that continues to bless; they are self-multiplying, exceed each successive year with increasing beauty and allow success at any level of gardening expertise. So, what are you waiting for?

“Bulbs need so little and give back so much. They start off homely, even ugly, and return transformed” — Lauren Springer Ogden