Critter Proof Bulbs

You love spring bulbs but have a huge deer and squirrel problem? Yes, this fall you can plant a number of bulbs that they will pass up! Most people know that daffodils are always ignored by deer and rodents, but don’t limit yourself to daffodils. There are many other deer/rodent resistant bulb varieties.

Scilla, a deer resistant bulb, naturalized in the lawn at Chanticleer, in Wayne, Pa
Closeup of Blue Scilla Siberica
Deer are invading our neighborhoods and gobbling up our landscaping, picture by Valerie Ryan

Deer and Rodents

Deer are a huge problem here in the mid-Atlantic and as a designer, I recommend planting bulbs that deer won’t devour-leucojum, hyacinths, alliums, snowdrops, crocus, daffodils, scilla, iris reticulata, chiondoxa, fritillaria, winter aconites, and grape hyacinths. So, don’t think your deer problem is going to stop you from planting bulbs and enjoying spring color. For deer resistant perennials, go to Fuzzy, Fragrant, and Ferny; Deer Proof Plants for the Garden.

Sprinkle cayenne pepper on plants that deer browse on

Be careful about tulips even in protected areas. Deer love them and will jump fences to get at them!!

Tulips are loved by so many but are devoured by deer

Crocus are deer resistant but the bulbs are cold weather delicacies to rodents. You could protect the bulbs by laying a piece of hardware cloth on top of the newly planted  bulbs and fastening it down with soil staples. I do that for my lily bulbs which deer love but I grow anyway.

Hardware cloth is a metal mesh, much like  chicken wire, except that it uses a smaller grid pattern, usually about 1/2 inch square. Alternatively you can cage the bulbs in hardware cloth before planting, but I find that laying cut pieces of it on top of the bulbs is much easier. Fasten down with soil staples or rocks. Just remove it in the early spring.

Lay pieces of hardware cloth on top of the ground

Be sure to avoid using smelly fertilizers while planting bulbs, like bone meal, blood meal, or fish emulsion. Attracting every animal in the neighborhood, your bulbs will definitely be dug up. I once placed a sealed bag of blood meal in my open car port and neighbor dogs came and devoured it!

Alliums-The King of Deer Resistance (And Rodents)

Alliums are one of the best bulbs for deer avoidance. They actually repel deer as they are in the onion family, and have an onion odor. Chase away garden nibblers with these bulbs! The combination of sulfides that make a great tomato sauce also repels deer and rodents. If you time it right, you can have alliums blooming all season long. Go to Longfield Gardens to see the large variety available.

Easy to grow and multiplying in number, I am sure to include alliums in my garden in ever greater numbers. Here is a brief listing of some varieties:

  • Allium christophii  Christophii has a round flower head composed of 50 or so star-shaped lavender flowers with a silvery sheen. The leaves die back as the flowers fade; the remaining brown stems and seed heads can be snipped, but that dried look is becoming very chic in gardening circles and can be spray painted any color you choose.
  • Allium karataviense This is a low-growing plant, good for a rock garden or beside steps. Pleated foliage makes this a to-die-for plant and the flower is as large as a tennis ball.
  • Allium moly Probably the easiest of the small alliums, this one has a spray of bright yellow flowers and does well in the shade.
  • Allium sphaerocephalon Also known as “Drumstick” allium, this plant’s long name just means it has a round head. A tight little purple knob that never quite opens, this is one of my favorites.
  • Allium schubertii The Tumbleweed Onion.  An heirloom that looks like spidery fireworks that has incredibly huge, airy, 12″-wide umbels of up to 100 purple florets extended on stems atop a straight, thick and sturdy stalk. When the bud first emerges from its papery sheath, A. schubertii looks like an upright, thick green paint brush.  This one is my favorite alliums and the large dried seed heads come loose and roll around my garden-Fun!
Allium emerging from the sheath
Allium ‘Globemaster’ at Chelsea Flower Show
Leaving the dried stalks in the garden long after the bloom fades adds interesting textures and shapes
Allium schubertii blooms pop up through perennials
Bees love Allium flowers
Wide variety of alliums seen at Chelsea Flower Show
Drumstick Allium, from Longfield Gardens
Allium karataviense

Other Critter Resistant Bulbs

Deer leave grape hyacinths alone

Winter Aconites are one of the first bulbs that appear for me. Go to Winter Aconite-The Bulb That Keeps on Giving for more information about this incredible harbinger of spring.

Winter Aconites

For an unusual choice of spring color, try Fritillarias which make an incredible statement in the garden. For a great article on Pineapple Lilies, Fritillarias, go to Time to Plant Pineapple Lilies.  

Fritillarias, photo from Longfield Gardens
Crocus-Deer avoid them but rodents gobble them up!
There are all kinds of daffodils and deer and rodents won’t touch them; seen at Brent and Becky’s

Daffodils, like alliums, are distasteful to rodents and deer. Containing alkaloids, the family of compounds that includes nicotine and morphine, daffodils are the king of bulbs!!

Daffodils along with chiondoxa, Glory of the Snow, another critter resistant bulb
Leucojum forms a large colony quickly. My dog is my deer repellent!

 

Leucojum aestivum or Summer Snowflake is deer proof
Leucojum is an old fashioned bulb that reminds me of giant snowdrops
Snowdrops
Hyacinths in containers, another deer resistant bulb, photo from Longfield Gardens
Hyacinths come in a wide variety of colors, seen at Chelsea Flower Show

 

Longfield Gardens is my go-to source for quality bulbs.  They have a huge selection and are a great information source. They have a deer resistant collection that would be perfect for your deer ravaged yard!

 

 

 

Bulbs in Pots-Portable Containers for Spring

 

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If you don’t have a yard or outdoor space to plant outdoor bulbs like Tulips, Daffs, Iris, or Hyacinths, don’t despair….Plant them in pots. Easy peasey. So much better to plop your bulbs in nice loose potting medium rather than slaving with a heavy shovel to get your bulbs down to the proper depth in a heavy clay soil.  Frustrating? You bet! But in containers, think of the advantages:

  • You can enjoy your bulbs up close and personal
  • Change the look and appearance of your garden instantly
  • Grow bulbs that require specialized TLC
  • Pop them into containers with other spring flowers
  • Experiment with new varieties. Plus, you can have beautiful pots of spring flowers welcoming friends to your front door or brightening your patio for weeks in the spring when you become starved for color and fragrance
  • You can have tulips without the deer eating them! Place your pots close to the house, like on your porch where the deer won’t venture
Amaryllis are one of the easiest of indoor bulbs to bloom; here they are blooming in the nursery display boxes

Outdoors For Spring Bloom Vs Forcing
Fall-planted bulbs in containers have different needs than bulbs planted directly in the ground. I am not talking about “forcing” bulbs which means to accelerate your bloom period. In that scenario, your bulbs bloom in late winter, earlier than scheduled for their normal bloom period. That method requires pre-chilling to get the required days of cold that each bulb needs. I didn’t want to fool with forcing this year. So, I decided to enjoy my bulbs in containers by my back door without fiddling with burying the pots and/or chilling bulbs that forcing requires. Go to Bringing Spring In-Forcing Bulbs for more information on pre-chilling and forcing if you want winter color indoors.

For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to
For how-to on forcing Hyacinths for indoor bloom, go to Longfield Gardens blog 

 

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Grape Hyacinth ‘Valerie Finnis’ is one of the prettiest minor bulbs
Miniature Iris in a pot
Miniature Iris in a pot is also a favorite; this blue variety is a stunner-‘Katharine Hodgkin’

Another use for your bulbs in containers is to use them in mixed spring containers for an instant pop of color.

Blooming Tulips, Daffs, and Grape Hyacinths add great color to a spring container
Blooming Tulips, Daffs, and Grape Hyacinths add great color to a spring container-by Leigh Barnes

Creating an enclosed environment for your tiny packages of blooms is easy if you remember a few cardinal rules.

  • Potting Medium-Use a high quality potting medium with lots of perlite or vermiculite for porous well draining soil (not garden soil)
  • Pots-Use flexible plastic pots that give with the changes of temperature (terra-cotta can break); You can slip these into decorative pots when they bloom
  • Spacing-Plant bulbs so they’re close but not touching, with their tips just below the soil surface. Here is your chance to stuff them in for a huge color show
  • Depth-Pot bulbs are typically planted a little less shallowly than ground bulbs. But try to stick closely to recommended planting depths for best results. The goal is to leave as much room as possible under them for root growth
  • Layers-For a more abundant lavish look, you can layer your bulbs or stack them on top of each other but it is simpler to stick with one variety per pot for beginners
  • Temperature-In winter, bulbs in above-ground containers will get MUCH colder than those planted in the ground where the surrounding soil insulates. This means you’ll need to store your potted bulbs through the winter in a place that stays colder than 48° F most of the time but that doesn’t get as severely cold as the outside
  • Water-Check your soil all winter to make sure soil is moist but not soggy. Water infrequently when just started, but later when roots have filled in and top growth has started, ramp it up
  • Presentation-Place grit, gravel, or Spanish moss on top to finish it off or plant something shallow rooted on top, like moss
Miniature Iris are my favorite for pots
Miniature Iris are my favorite for pots
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
There is nothing more fragrant than a pot of Hyacinths by the back door, from Longfield Gardens
Tulips are also easy in pots
Tulips are also easy in pots

Storing
I keep my planted pots outside until the weather consistently gets below freezing. For me in the mid-Atlantic region, that could be as late as mid December, depending on the weather. Keeping my pots on my patio where I can easily throw some water on them, is the simplest way to monitor them. Once freezing temps are here to stay, I start bringing the pots in to a more sheltered position.

Since temperature is critical for success, it is important to choose an area that  is buffered from the killing freeze/thaw cycle, but still able to get the needed chilling for successful flowering. Keeping the pots in a cool shaded spot, like an unheated garage, until early spring growth appears is essential. For me it is an unheated mud room attached to my house once winter weather arrives.

I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house
I wrap my containers in bubble wrap and place them in an unheated mud room next to my house

Wrapping my pots in insulating bubble wrap and placing them next to the wall of the house in the mud room for any ambient warmth is my solution for minimal protection. A cold frame would work also. I have heard of gardeners even storing the pots in old-fashioned galvanized trash cans with some burlap or other filler stuffed around them. Storing them in cans will avoid the great destructor of bulbs-squirrels, mice, voles and other assorted varmints.

Use masking tape to hold the layers of bubble wrap around the pot

Check on your pot while it is being stored. Water when the soil feels dry to the touch. This will only happen every couple of weeks. Towards February, the tips of the bulbs will be pushing through the plants that you have planted on top.

Squirrels are very destructive with bulbs
Squirrels are very destructive with bulbs

If storing in a garage, be careful of ethylene gas emitted from exhaust fumes from warming-up cars. Ethylene gas can cause flower buds to abort and you end up with wonderful pots of foliage only. If you store in an old refrigerator, be aware of ripening nearby fruit for this reason as the ethylene gas of fruit can cause the same problem. Store the pots in impermeable plastic bags to avoid contamination.

This pot was planted in the fall and stored all winter.  I brought it out on the patio when the weather started to warm up; you can see the bulb foliage peeking through

Once top growth starts in the spring – pointy tips pushing through the soil-  gradually move the pots out into the partial sun acclimating them to brighter sunlight necessary for good flower development. Enjoy! I include a step by step guide on how to plant bulbs in containers at the end of this post.

Muscari or Grape Hyacinths are easy in containers
Muscari or Grape Hyacinths are easy in containers, from Longfield Gardens
My bulb delivery in the fall from Colorblends

After Care-3 Ways

Compost the bulbs, leave in the pot/plant in the ground in the fall, or replant in the garden right after flowering and still green are the three ways to handle the spent bulbs. If you replant, be sure to fertilize them with a bulb fertilizer as the bulbs have used all those nutrients up at their first burst of flowering. Most times, the flowers aren’t as spectacular as the first bloom using up all their energy, so I tend to compost them.

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Don’t hesitate to compost your used bulbs-There is no shame in that!

Step By Step for ‘Lasagna’ Pots

All of these bulbs fit into one layered pot

‘Lasagna’ pots just means layering your bulbs so that you have a 6-7 week display from one pot of different types of bulbs.

My Garden Club had a workshop making ‘lasagna’ plantings of bulbs
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First layer covered with potting medium
  • Fill your deep container  (16″ deep)with a high-quality potting mix about 3-4 inches deep
  • Plant your bulbs almost as deeply as you would in the ground; for instance, 6 or 7 inches deep for tulips and daffodils, and 3 or 4 inches deep for little bulbs such as Crocus and Miniature Iris
  • Press the bulbs firmly into the soil, growing tips up. If layering, make sure that you cover one layer completely before placing more bulbs
  • For my layers, I planted the following from deepest to the most shallowly planted;  1st layer- 10 Daffodils, 2nd layer- 10 Hyacinths, 3rd layer-16 Tulips, 4th and last layer- 50 assorted small bulbs (I used 20 Grape Hyacinth, 20 Crocus, and 10 Mini Iris)

 

The first layer of Daffodil bulbs is planted the deepest
  •  Water your bulbs well after planting
  • Plant either pansies, moss,  or fall cabbages to the top for more insulating helpLayer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth
  • Layer your bulbs according to the suggested planting depth; Here I used a container 18″ in diameter and 16″ deep for a good root run
Place all your bulbs closed together
Place all your bulbs close together; This is the top layer using minor bulbs like Crocus, Mini Iris, and Grape Hyacinth
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
Plant pansies or fall cabbages on top for extra insulation
This pot I finished off with Irish Moss, and creeping Sedum
The ‘lasagna’ pot in bloom
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulip bulbs planted very close together
Tulips popping up in the spring

The sources of bulbs for this post were ColorBlends, Longfield Gardens, Brent and Becky’s, and Old House Gardens.