Good rot and bad rot 

Questions about planting spring bulbs and composting

Shari E. of Boise wonders: "Last year my spring bulbs were a disaster, very few came up or flowered. When I dug them up they were all rotten. I was so disappointed. I put bonemeal in the hole like all the gardening books suggested and planted them the depth that the package said. What did I do wrong?"

Spring flowering bulbs are usually a foolproof way to beautify your landscape because the flower is already inside the bulb ready to sprout once it receives the cooling period (vernalization) winter provides. Nature's ingenious method of packaging these living time capsules is pretty amazing.

Let's assume, Shari, that your bulbs were healthy to start with--firm and heavy, not dried out or moldy. Now let's look at your soil. If you have heavy clay soil, did you loosen it up for better drainage? Bulbs like good drainage. They won't do well if planted in a place that gets overly wet or soggy, like under a gutter downspout. Some folks add generous amounts of sand or fine gravel with finished compost (humus) to encourage better drainage in their clay soil when planting bulbs. If your soil is sandy, drainage won't be a problem for you.

Now let's look at how the bonemeal was applied. Did you put the bonemeal in contact with the bulbs? (This goes for any other undecomposed organic material like manure or unfinished compost.) This is a common mistake gardeners make during bulb planting; they put fertilizer in the hole and the bulb right on top of the fertilizer--a major no-no. If you did this with your fertilizer, that's your answer.

Next time, put a tablespoon of bonemeal or a teaspoon of high phosphorus commercial fertilizer like 5-10-5 in the hole, but be sure to put an inch of soil in between the bulb and the fertilizer. This will ensure the bulb will not be burnt or rotted by the fertilizer. (Phosphorus is the second number on the package and it helps roots and flowers develop.)

Bonemeal, like other organic substances, must be broken down by microbes, (fungus and bacteria in the soil), before the nutrients can be released to the roots. The breakdown or decomposition that goes on is a rotting process and you don't want your bulbs in contact with, nor do you want them lying on top of salty fertilizer. Salt dehydrates and burns.

After burying your spring treasures, make sure that you water the soil thoroughly to eliminate air pockets and establish good contact between the bulbs and the soil. This first watering will start the roots growing.

Don't give up on bulbs. Try again right now when many bulbs are available and on sale. There's nothing quite like spring flowering snowdrops, crocus, tulips, daffodils and hyacinths to brighten up a gardener's disposition at the end of a long winter.

Gary P. of Garden Valley asks: "I have tons of leaves, grass clippings and plant debris from my vegetable garden that I'd like to compost during the winter and spring. Are there any classes available where I can learn how to compost correctly?"

Unfortunately, you just missed the bonanza of composting courses. The eight-week Master Composter course is offered once a year in the fall by the University of Idaho (UI) Extension in Ada County. It is an excellent way to learn everything you want to know about composting and then some. Put your application in now for next year's program.

But here's another thought, you can sign up for the five-week UI Gardening 101 Series, which includes a two-hour composting class. To obtain an application for either the Master Composter Program or to sign up for the Gardening 101 Series, call UI Extension at 377-2107.

Also, a one-hour class on composting is held in January as part of the Water Efficient Landscaping Series co-sponsored by UI and United Water. Call United Water at 362-7304 for the exact dates of that seven-week series. One more place to check is the Idaho Botanical Garden; they often offer a class on composting during their fall lecture series.

In the meantime, stop by any UI Extension office to pick up how-to brochures on composting. Composting is not difficult since everything rots ... eventually. During the cold winter, the composting process slows way down; in spring, it speeds up again. Once you get started, you'll be hooked. Finished compost (humus) is the answer to curing soil problems; I foresee many days of happy composting ahead for you.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension in Ada County. Send gardening questions to Suzann c/o Boise Weekly or e-mail

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