Bulbs are nature's answer to all those impatient gardeners trying to get a running start on spring. Plant them now, as temperatures cool but before the ground freezes hard, and the bulbs will provide a cheerful, colourful show before the last snows of winter melt away. Bulb

You're in for a treat if you're new to bulb gardening. Bloom colours are dazzling and their year-to-year staying power provides great value.  You can be forgiven if you're unaware of a few bulb basics - starting with which end should go up when dropping them into the ground. For the record, it's the pointed end. The side showing the stringy evidence of roots should face bottom.   "If you aren't sure, plant it sideways. It should right itself," said Barbara Pierson, nursery manager at White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Conn.

Here are a few more bulb culture essentials:

•-        Plant bulbs deep and in well-drained soils having a neutral pH. "Big bulbs, including daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, get planted 8 inches (20 cm) deep," said Sally Ferguson, a spokeswoman for the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. "Small bulbs, such as grape hyacinths, crocus and others are planted 5 inches (12 cm) deep."

•-        Water newly planted bulbs frequently to help get their roots established.

•-        Perennials need to be fed. Fertilize bulbs once in the fall and again in the spring with an organic mixture of 9-9-6, the percentage, by weight, of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Spread that slow-release organic blend over the ground's surface rather than into the holes, which may cause root burn.

•-        Cut the plants after they've finished blooming to prevent wasted seed pod growth and to allow leaves and stems to dry before tidying up.

"For the first year, at least, a bulb has everything inside it that it needs to grow and it blooms beautifully for you."  Most flowering bulbs are described as perennials, but some are more perennial than others - especially when given a proper start and a little attention during each growing season. To ensure many happy returns, choose bulbs labelled "Good for Perennializing" or "Good for Naturalizing."

Spring flowering bulbs like their time in the sun, but many will do well in partial shade or when planted randomly in "drifts" beneath trees in orchards or woodlots.  "Early blooming bulbs such as crocus and snowdrops can thrive under deciduous trees if they receive three to four hours of sun after the trees leaf out," said Pierson. "Late blooming tulips and daffodils will not thrive under trees. Most bulbs appreciate six hours of sun per day, but can tolerate four hours."

Bulbs do not survive extended periods out of the ground, do not perform well when kept outside in containers and won't long endure if their blooms are cut.

"Small bulbs such as snowdrops and fleshy bulbs like lilies are most vulnerable in storage, so they are best planted as soon as possible," Kunst said. "Daffodils, tulips and other bulbs with dried skins or tunics can be stored in open paper bags (for circulation) in a relatively cool, dry place for a few weeks."

It's great to be able to bring a bouquet of tulips or daffodils into the house in early spring but that can shorten the life of the plants in your outdoor beds. The flowers need to die back naturally so they can be nourished for many years of growth.  "If you cut back a tulip, I can almost guarantee they won't grow back another year. That's why I recommend a separate cutting garden," van den Berg-Ohms said.  Spring blooming bulbs are stunners in mass plantings - carpets of colour after the dull, drab months of winter

 Source:  October 15, 2008  Dean Fosdick - THE ASSOCIATED PRESS