Feed the lawn, then plant bulbs

October 16, 2013 

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Brian Schneider fired up the mower to cut the lawn at his mother-in-law's yard in eastside Olympia on Tuesday, May 17, 2011. (Tony Overman/Staff Photographer)

TONY OVERMAN — The Olympian

If you haven’t yet given your lawn the all-important fall feeding, then it is time to get on your garden clogs and get to work this weekend.

In Western Washington it is more important to fertilize the lawn with a “slow-release” fall and winter lawn food than it is to fertilize in the spring. Do not use a “weed and feed” product.

Our lawns do best when fertilized in both the fall and spring but if you only feed once a year, make it during the months of September or October.

A fall feeding not only nourishes the lawn but it will also help the early spring grass growth to crowd out the new weeds. Our plentiful winter rains will wash a fall application of lawn food down to the grass roots.

This is also the perfect week to add lime or “Soil Sweet” to your lawn area. Our soils are naturally acid in Western Washington, and this encourages moss and slows down the growth of lawn grasses. Adding lime will also help clay soils to break down and improve drainage. Just be patient — it may take several years and multiple applications to notice results.

Another outdoor project this week is to plant spring-blooming bulbs. In our mild winter climate you can plant tulip, daffodil and hyacinth bulbs up until November for glorious spring blooms. Here are the most asked questions about planting bulbs:

Question: We just moved into a new home and have not been able to add topsoil or improve the soil. Would I be wasting my time by planting tulip and daffodil bulbs in the lousy rocky soil? We live in Bonney Lake, an area known for lean and rocky soil. N.H. Email

Answer: Dig in and you’ll enjoy the flowers of your labor this spring.

Rocky, sandy soil is actually a great home for most bulbs as the most basic requirement is good drainage. If your soil is too hard to dig you can still enjoy spring-blooming bulbs the lazy way. Loosen the soil just a few inches deep, set the bulbs on top then cover them with potting soil or topsoil that you can purchase in bags at a garden center now.

It is most practical to consider tulips as annual flowers — this means they live only one year and are not likely to rebloom as well the second year. Daffodils are another story. Even in rocky soil or in a shaded area daffodils have a good chance of returning year after year — especially if you plant the small or dwarf daffodils such as “Tete a Tete” or the early blooming daffodil “February Gold.”

Q. Do I have to buy and add fertilizer when I plant spring bulbs? What about bone meal? Is bone meal considered a fertilizer? I am a thrifty gardener. R.T., Tacoma

A. No, dirt-cheap gardeners will still enjoy spring blooms if all you do is dig and plant bulbs now. You can even wait a few more weeks until all the bulbs in bins go on sale and load up with the leftovers or picked-over bulbs for mere pennies.

Bone meal is a soil additive that ensures the bulbs have enough minerals for root growth but is not considered a complete fertilizer. Here’s the real dirt on growing bulbs. The flower is already formed and ready to grow inside the bulb. There is nothing you can feed the bulb at this point to improve that bloom.

Planting early into loose, well-drained soil is what new bulbs need to make strong roots and perform at their peak. If you want to ensure many more blooms in future years you need to feed the foliage of the bulb after it is done flowering and don’t remove the yellowing leaves for at least six weeks after the flower fade. Invest in the biggest, fattest and firmest bulbs you can find for the largest blooms this coming spring.

Q. I was impressed with the flowering onions or alliums that I saw you spray-paint purple in your garden. I saw them in person on the Enumclaw garden tour and also saw how you painted them by using a newspaper cone and purple spray paint on your TV show Dig In Seattle. My question is, where do I buy bulbs like that and when do I plant them? B.F. Enumclaw

A. I was impressed with my flowering alliums as well – those giant purple orbs looked great all summer and into the fall, and I think the spray paint preserved the dried flower heads so they continue to add color and texture.

You can find the huge blooms of alliums at local nurseries, garden centers and from mail order bulb catalogs. As a member of the onion family these late-spring blooming bulbs are deer- and mouse-resistant.

They do have rather large and floppy leaves that follow the flowers, but they are one of the few bulbs that you can remove the leaves once the bulbs bloom without harming future flowers.

There are many different varieties of alliums. The giant “Globe Master” allium has huge blooms up to 10 inches around on strong stems. Mount Everest is a white form. Purple sensation is a deep purple, and there are even some blue alliums. Enjoy the blooms while they are fresh, and then wait until the flowers dry and turn brown before you preserve them with a dusting of spray paint. The hollow stems of these bulbs may grow weak and fall over by mid-summer, so I cut them off at ground level and then slip the cut stem over thin garden stakes or wooden dowels to keep them standing upright.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.

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