Every spring, garden centers get hundreds of calls from people wondering why they can't find bulbs to plant.

We know you know better. We know you know you have to plant in the fall to have daffodils, tulips and crocuses in the spring. What you might not know is why yours haven't been as glorious as those in the catalogs --if they came up at all.

We're here to help.

Gardening experts from as far away as Holland have given us fall bulb trends, shopping information and planting tips that will help you have a welcome show of color next spring. Read on.

Words to the wise

n "By planting bulbs, people communicate their faith in the future. They are not only anticipating spring will come, they are ensuring that it will be so." -- Dr. Clotaire Rapaille, French-born medical anthropologist

n "Not waiting till the end [of the season to buy bulbs] is important. Digging up, washing clean, fumigating, putting on a boat from Holland, drying up in a box [at the garden center] is not what God intended for a bulb." -- Alan Summers, president of Carroll Gardens in Westminster and host of "The Garden Club" on WCBM radio

n "The smell of bone meal is like a sign that says: 'Attention, squirrels. Dig here.' " -- Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center

This last brings up the subject of rodents. They may very well be the reason your tulips didn't come up this spring. Before you buy your bulbs, you should decide whether you want a battle on your hands. If you don't, stick to narcissi (which include narcissi, jonquils and daffodils). Their bulbs are poisonous, and that probably will keep rodents from digging them up.

The clock is ticking

Gardening experts agree that fall bulbs should be planted about six weeks before the ground freezes solid. This is the kind of advice that sounds good but is hard to follow. Your best bet is to plant after two weeks of nighttime temperatures in the 40s or low 50s. The White House gardeners plant in early November, if that's any help.

So why are we urging you to rush right out and buy your bulbs now? You want to get the great bulbs: the largest, firmest, healthiest little flower factories you can find. Go to your garden center and pick through the bins yourself. Avoid the bags of mixed varieties, which might not be as big and healthy. Or get the September issue of Consumer Reports, see how they rate the mail-order companies, and order from one of them. (John Scheeper's, Van Lierop Bulb Farm and Dutch Gardens got the three highest ratings.) Then keep your bulbs happy in a cool, dark place until it's time to plant.

What should you buy? Narcissi, of course. And tulips if you're brave. (If the rodents don't get the bulbs, deer and rabbits may feast on the flowers.) Snowdrops, hyacinths, iris, and crocuses -- actually corms, not bulbs, a technical difference you don't have to worry about -- all do well in our area and give a staggered display of color throughout spring. Consult your garden center for specific varieties suitable for your yard.

Just remember, you're going to have to dig holes for those bulbs you've bought, so be realistic. And ...

"Be courageous!" says Ben van der Veldt, vice president and general manager of Breck's Holland, a bulb company in the Netherlands. "There are so many different types, shapes and colors!"

Van der Veldt is the person who knows about trends, along with Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. As in home and fashion, styles come and go in spring flowering bulbs.

What's hot

Fragrance. Aromatherapy, scented candles and such for the home are important trends; so are fragrant flowering bulbs. You may be surprised to learn that not only hyacinths have a wonderful scent, but also certain narcissi and tulips, such as Narcissus 'Bridal Crown' and 'Carlton,' and Tulipa 'Angelique' and 'Apricot Beauty.' Plant them near a window or walkway.

The Blues. "The U.S. is looking to match colors in the house," says van der Veldt. "The new blue tulips, crocuses, small bulbs--everything blue sells very well."

The Brights. Maybe you didn't buy anything orange when it was so big in clothes. Here's your second chance to be fashion forward. Bold colors, particularly orange, have been and continue to be a strong trend for spring flowering bulbs.

Purple, says Ferguson, is next on the horizon as the big color in flowering bulbs.

The nitty gritty

It's time to get your hands dirty.

Even if you can't plant now, you can start preparing the soil for your bulbs. It should drain well, which means working in some peat moss if necessary. When the ground is cool enough (about 60 degrees six inches down if anyone is taking its temperature), plant your bulbs in clusters--"Not in rigid rows like soldiers," says van der Veldt. In general, the larger the bulb, the deeper you plant it, from crocuses (3 inches down) to tulips (6 to 8 inches).

Forget the traditional dose of bone meal. It no longer contains the nutrients it used to, according to Summers, and can attract rodents. Instead sprinkle bulb food or slow-release fertilizer over the bed when you're finished. (Don't put it in the hole; it can burn the bulb's roots.)

Water well after planting.

When you're finished, be sure to clean up any bulb debris, which may attract rodents.

People often mulch at the wrong time. Mulch to keep the bulbs consistently cool, not warm. You can wait until December if you wish.

Newly worked soil attracts squirrels, voles and other rodents. Cover the bed with old window screens to protect the bulbs, suggests Ferguson. Rain will get through but not rodents. Once the newly turned ground settles you can put the screens back in the garage.

And one last tip from Summers:

"Pointy side up."

In other words, don't plant your bulbs upside down.

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