Bulbs Getting Eaten?
October 4th, 2007
Gardeners generally are more patient than the average American.
We realize, for instance, there’s going to be nothing to show for all of this month’s bulb-planting work until a good 5 to 6 months from now when the little oniony things finally cough up glorious daffodil and tulip blooms.
But even the most serene soil jockey will get his trowel in a tangle when spring arrives and the bulbs are a no-show.
One of two things is usually behind that: 1.) The bulbs rotted out in wet clay or, 2.) They ended up as lunch for some rodent.
Solving the rotting problem is easy.
Just don’t plant in any low-lying or wet-prone area, and improve bulb beds with generous amounts of compost before planting. Slightly raised beds are great for bulbs.
The animal problem is a little trickier.
The good news is that it’s mainly tulips that are at risk of ending up as animal dessert.
The bad news is that’s precisely the bulb most people want to plant.
So one obvious solution is to skip tulips and maybe crocuses (No. 2 on the bulb menu) and instead plant bulbs that animals really don’t like. These include daffodils, Siberian squill, glory-of-the-snow, hyacinths and others on the accompanying list.
I’ve also had success with the “Old Country Buffet” approach.
You know how you go to one of those all-you-can-eat places and see so many things you want to eat? Even if you cram down so much that you’re ready to explode, you can’t even make a dent in the supply.
That works with tulips in the landscape. I’ll plant 500 of them, and even if the greedy rodents eat 200, I still have 300 left to make a decent display. Ha!
Assuming you’re not that much of a gardening wacko but still want to grow a few tulips and crocuses, you’ve got a few other options.
As in any warfare, you first have to understand the enemy.
We’re dealing with invaders on two fronts here.
One is burrowing rodents – such as mice, squirrels, voles and chipmunks – that eat bulbs before they ever have a chance to shoot up.
The other is above-ground foragers such as deer and rabbits that chew the flower buds off growing plants before they open.
Groundhogs – that horrid creature that God created to keep gardeners from getting too cocky – can get you coming and going, both above-ground and below.
The best defense against underground attack is to screen out the pests.
A sheet of chicken wire laid over the bed after planting, then covered with mulch, works great. Rodents can’t tunnel down through it, but the bulb shoots can poke up through the thumb-sized openings.
Smarter rodents, however, can tunnel down beside the wire and then go sideways into the bulb booty.
You can outsmart even those rodents by building what’s essentially a buried cage around the bulbs.
First, excavate the bed down to the planting depth of the bulbs (typically about 6 inches for tulips). Lay chicken wire across the bottom, plant the bulbs and then fold up all four sides of the wire as you backfill the hole with soil. Lay another sheet of chicken wire across the top to completely enclose the planting. Touché, Mr. Vole!
An alternative to wire is making the soil too scratchy for rodent comfort.
Espoma’s gritty Soil Perfector (sold in bags at most garden centers) can be mixed into your bulb beds to discourage tunneling. Gravel, stone dust or similar crushed rock at about 10 percent volume also may do the trick at less cost.
The bonus with this treatment is that the stone fragments also improve soil drainage.
Another little aid: Don’t telegraph the fact that you’ve just planted bulbs.
* Clean up those little papery sheaths that come off of tulip bulbs. The scent draws rodents to the site.
* Don’t mulch the beds until mid to late November. “Premature mulching invites mice, voles and other unwanted critters to nest in your bulb beds,” says Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center in Danby, Vt. “Lucky them to find such warm, cozy dens for the winter!”
* And you might be able to disguise the scent of newly planted tulips and crocuses by interplanting your bulb beds with species that rodents find revolting, such as alliums (ornamental onions), fritillaria and daffodils.
To head off above-ground attacks in spring, repellents are as good as anything.
Lots of commercial products are available to spray on and around emerging bulb plants, including Ropel, Predator Fox Urine, TreeGuard, Liquid Fence, Plantskydd and Hot Pepper Wax.
Some gardeners have reported success with such homemade repellents as human hair, rotten-egg concoctions, hanging sponge pieces soaked in a bloodmeal/ammonia mixture and even human urine (a good assignment for the man of the house).
Another effective defense is enlisting an energetic cat or dog. They’ll actually find it great sport chasing down rodents and rabbits all day.
If you’re really getting desperate, there’s fencing.
For deer, you’ll need an 8-foot fence around the perimeter of your property or an electric fence or a pair of shorter but parallel fences 3 feet apart.
To fence out groundhogs and rabbits, sink fencing 3 feet down – or 1 foot down and 2 feet out. Also let the top unsecured so groundhogs won’t have support to climb over.
This isn’t the most ornamental move, but hey, if everything else has failed, it’s the principle of the thing at stake now.
One last backup plan… you could go with the non-tasty stuff in the ground and plant your tulips only in pots and window boxes. You might want to cover the tops with window screen or netting until spring.
If none of that works, I hear Michael’s craft store sells some very real-looking silk tulips.
Let’s see the groundhogs eat those.
Ten spring-flowering bulbs that can be planted now that animal pests are unlikely to bother:
1.) Daffodils (Narcissus). Early to mid-spring bloomers with cup-shaped flowers of gold, white and pastel shades.
2.) Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). Short April bloomers with cobalt-blue hanging flowers.
3.) Grape hyacinths (Muscari). 6-inch May bloomers with spiky purple, dark-blue or white flowers.
4.) Hyacinths (Hyacinthus). Foot-tall fragrant April bloomers with fat spikes of purple, blue, pink, rose or white.
5.) Ornamental onions (Allium). Diverse family of late-spring to early-summer bloomers, most with rounded purple flowers of varying sizes.
6.) Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa). Short early-spring bloomer with star-shaped flowers of white, pink or purple-blue.
7.) Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). Short late-winter bloomer with hanging white flowers.
8.) Fritillaria. Mid-spring bloomer with variety of types. Most common is foot-tall type with checkerboard red-purple and white hanging flowers.
9.) Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica). Foot-tall upright late-spring bloomer with spikes of hanging pink or blue flowers.
10.) “Tommy” crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus). Very short early-spring bloomer with upright, tubular light-purple flowers.
— Source: Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center