It’s a great time to plant spring-blooming bulbs. They can be planted in the ground or planted in pots. Aside from being great for movement and dexterity, an activity such as planting bulbs can help people learn about planting seasons, the different parts of a bulb, and growing flowers. It’s also really great to see your team’s efforts come to life when the new colors pop up in spring.
Gardening as therapy
Horticultural therapy is the use of plants and gardens to promote health and wellness in individuals or groups. Gardening has been recorded as an activity as far back as 500 BC; when people started to create gardens to reap the therapeutic benefits gardening gives to each of the senses.
Many studies have shown the benefits of gardening on physical and mental wellbeing such as prolonged life, soil microbes as antidepressants, a much lower risk of disease for those who live near green areas, and many more. One research project, which ran for eight months, studied 25 in-patients with major depression and anxiety disorders. Once a week, patients would garden with staff. The study was an overwhelming success, with most patients reporting improvement in motivation, enjoyment of being in nature, and social interaction. Here’s what two of those patients had to say:
“I associate that with us going into the garden and being a community together and tending to it and taking care of it. And that kind of instills me to want to take care of myself.”
The second patient said: “I did something productive. I felt good. It was a way of getting my mind off my problems.”
Although Stephen’s Place is not a therapeutic program, we do facilitate opportunities with therapeutic components for our residents and day program visitors. One way we do this is by providing the activities, space, and support for our weekly gardening club. We’ve found that gardening offers a sensory experience involving touch, taste, sound, sound, and sight. The garden club has been a place where people can grow, celebrate their independence, make friends, and strengthen their community.
Horticultural Therapy at Stephen’s Place
Michelle Goodwin, director of our greenhouse project, has volunteered at Stephen’s Place since we opened. She had the idea for our Horticultural Therapy program and, along with her wonderful husband Greg, she built our state-of-the-art greenhouse.
Michele first heard about horticultural therapy while she was on a trip to Japan. “One of the women I met told me during a casual conversation over lunch that she was a ‘horticultural therapist,’ and of course my ears perked right up!” Michele said. “I had no idea there was such a specialty, and so I asked her about it, and learned that this was just the sort of program we needed to develop at Stephen’s Place.”
Why is planting spring bulbs an autumn activity?
Many bulbs need a cold period to germinate. Planting in spring before the first frost does a few things. The early planting schedule allows the bulbs to establish roots before the ground freezes so that they’re able to concentrate on flowering in spring.
If you plant bulbs too far in advance, they could rot from oversaturation by the rain. If they’re planted too late, they won’t be able to build enough energy for flowering.
Group activity idea
At Stephen’s Place, our garden club recently chose to layer a pot for spring bulbs. One reason for layering is so that flowers will bloom at different times and give us a show throughout the spring. Layering spring pots is a great way to get everyone involved together while learning about different bloom cycles. It also helps people bond because they get to watch their collaborative creation grow and blossom.
To start your own spring bulb planting activity, you can begin with soil that you amend yourselves or with soil that already has fertilizer built-in. The perfect pH is between 6.0 and 7.0 for most spring bulbs. As a group lesson, you could start by discussing your plan and drawing a diagram of where each type of plant will lay in your pot.
Depending on how many people you have, you can either split the task by one person per layer or you can ask each person to add a little soil to the pot for each layer. You will want to add soil then a layer of one type of bulb, then soil, then another type of bulb. For ours we started with Tulips on the bottom, daffodils second, hyacinths third, and crocus for the top.
You will need
- Pen and poster paper to plan layers
- A very large garden pot
- Enough soil to fill the pot (this can be premixed or you can build another activity in by amending your soil to a pH between 6.0 and 7.0 and adding bone meal).
- Your chosen bulbs for each layer (you will be placing them 1-2 inches apart).
- Start by adding 4-6 inches of soil to the base of the pot.
- Place a layer of your tallest bulbs on the soil 1-2 inches apart. Place them pointy side up and slightly push them into the soil to secure them. (This is where we did tulips).
- Once the first set of bulbs are in, cover them with soil completely.
- Add your a layer of your second tallest bulbs, pointy side up.
- Cover with soil.
- Add your third tallest bulbs in the same way as the previous steps and cover with soil.
- Add your final, and smallest bulbs.
- Cover with soil.
- Give them a good drink of water using a gentle sprayer. You will not need to water them again until spring when they start to pop up.
When to plant spring bulbs
The time to start bulbs varies slightly from one hardiness zone to the other. Where Stephen’s Place is, in Vancouver, Washington, the ideal time to plant bulbs is in late October to early November.
Generally, planting bulbs in the pacific northwest should be done by mid-November. This is usually the time where the soil is warm enough to encourage the roots to grow without allowing so much time that the plant starts to grow above ground too. A general rule is to plant bulbs when nighttime temperatures are around 40 or 50 degrees or approximately 6 weeks before you expect the ground to freeze. For hardiness zones where it’s quite a bit colder during winter but not freezing, you can pop the bulbs into a bag and into the freezer to stimulate them to start growing roots. This should be done at around eight weeks before planting.
How to plant bulbs in the ground
You can use flower beds, containers, or raised beds for your spring bulbs. A spot with at least 6 hours of sunlight or a layered pot that you can move will provide the optimal conditions for most spring-flowering bulbs.
For planting in-ground, prep your soil by removing weeds, loosening and turning the soil, and adding sand for adequate drainage. Bulbs also like soil that is rich in organic matter. It’s good to keep in mind that most spring-blooming bulbs prefer a soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0. If your soil doesn’t fall within this range, you can amend it until the pH is at a workable level.
Once the soil is prepared, make a hole around three times the depth that the bulb is in height. Bone meal is a slow-release phosphorus-heavy fertilizer and can be sprinkled inside the planting hole or worked through the soil to help your new bulbs quickly establish roots. Phosphorus is needed for the roots to grow nice and strong. It’s important to note that fertilizers like bone meal will only work if the soil pH is below 7.0.
Next, place the bulb in the ground with the shoot (or pointier end) facing upwards. Cover with soil, water well, and wait until the first sight of new spring growth to water again. When the plants start to emerge in early spring, it’s essential to water them well. They need a good drink of water because they are planted deep, but not so much that the excess water rots the roots.
Once you start to see the first shoots of spring, it’s time to feed your plants with some nutrients to assist with above-ground plant growth, and to tell them that it’s time to concentrate on growing upwards shoots instead of downwards roots.
Types of bulbs
As part of our horticultural therapy program, the Stephen’s Place garden club plants spring bulbs every year. Many of the residents at Stephen’s Place choose to be part of our garden club, and we also have people who live outside of Stephen’s Place who participate as part of our Thursday day program. This year, the budding horticulturalists of the Stephen’s Place community decided to plant tulips, daffodils, crocus’, snowdrops, and hyacinths.
Originating in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey), tulips are now popular the world over. It is said that they are the signal of spring. Tulips are a perennial herbaceous plant. Most commonly, tulips tend to come in warm colors like red, pink, yellow, reddish-purple, and they also come in white. With 150 species of tulips and over 3,000 different varieties, there are a lot of different styles of tulip to choose from.
Tulips only bloom for about 5-7 days. As a part of the Liliaceae family, the same as onion, garlic, and lilies, their edible petals can be used in place of onions in many recipes. While edible to humans, most of the Liliaceae family and most bulbs, in general, are highly poisonous to pets.
Different colored tulips symbolize different things; yellow tulips for happy thoughts, white for forgiveness, purple for royalty, and the red represents love.
Snowdrops are a majestic-looking woodland plant. They symbolize hope and new birth. As the name suggests, they can be planted in colder and moderate winters but dislike warmer climates. Standing at 3-4 inches tall, when fully grown, snowdrops are among the smallest flowers that are produced by bulbs. They’re suitable for planting in USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8.
As with many other spring-flowering bulbs, the best soil for Snowdrops is well-draining and rich in organic matter. Snowdrops thrive in full winter sun and filtered light of early spring. For Plant Hardiness Zones 2 through 4, plant your snowdrops in late September; Zones 5 & 6, in October; Zones 7 & 8, in early to mid-November.
Snowdrops are the birth flower for the month of January. There are many stories as to how the snowdrop got its name. Perhaps the most beautiful fable about this plant is that an angel caught a snowflake and breathed upon it. The snowflake journeyed through the clouds and rested on earth. Where the snowflake fell, the first snowdrop grew.
Most daffodils are hardy in zones 3-8 and will tolerate a range of soils, but they grow best in moderately fertile, well-drained soil. They will rot very quickly if their roots sit in pooled water. While they can tolerate partial shade, their favorite is full sun.
The botanical name of the genus Narcissus, to which the daffodil belongs and from which sometimes borrows the name, comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus. As one version of the story goes, there was once a boy named Narcissus who was so beautiful that every day he would go to a lake in the forest and stare in the still waters at his own reflection. He was so taken by his reflection that he would spend all day there. One day, while completely enchanted by his image, Narcissus fell in the lake and drowned. Where he had been crouching, a beautiful flower grew. That flower is now named the Narcissus or daffodil. It is said that the drooping neck of the Daffodil symbolizes the image of Narcissus bowing his head to admire his reflection in the lake.
The crocus is known as a symbol of youthfulness and cheerfulness. Crocus flowers can be planted almost anywhere but they thrive in sun to part sun. Crocus are hardy to zones 3-8 and require virtually no water because they prefer dry soil.
The crocus flower is another one that often pops up in Greek mythology. One such myth is commonly referred to as The Valley of Crocus. According to the fable, the flower was once gifted by Greek goddess Athena to a farm boy named Paras. The boy devoted his life to protecting the flower, and he loved it so much that he created an entire valley of them. Little did Paras know, but Athena had given some of her powers to the crocus. Even upon finding this out, Paras did not drink the crocus nectar that would have given him the powers of a Greek deity. Later, Athena’s thunderbolt and spear were stolen from her by the god Ares. She returned to the valley to find Para and was shocked that he had not drunk from the crocus. He gave the flower back to her so that she could protect her kingdom once again.
The origin stories of this and the next bulb on this list have remarkably similar traits. “Krokos” is the Greek word for crocus. Krokos was said to be a human companion of Hermes and was accidentally killed by the god in a game of discus. Distraught and wanting to pay his respects, Hermes transformed Krokos’ body into a flower that we now know by the name crocus.
Hyacinths are known to symbolize sincerity. They grow best in well-drained, moderately fertile soil; in sun or partial shade. Before planting hyacinths, you can work either bone meal or compost into the soil to lightly fertilize the plants. This flowering bulb is hardy in zones 4 through 8. Once they have broken through the surface of your soil, water them once a month with an inch of water.
Interestingly, Hyacinths are often used in perfume making and each different color of Hyacinth has a different fragrance.
According to mythology, the hyacinth got its name from a similar fate upon which the crocus was born. As the story goes, the Greek god Apollo taught his companion, Hyakinthos, how to play a traditional game involving the discus. Apollo threw the discus with such strength that it split the clouds in the sky. Hyakinthos ran behind it to catch it and impress Apollo but it hit the ground and bounced back to fatally wound Hyakinthos. Much as Hermes did for his companion, Krokos, Apollo made his friend’s body into a flower that we know as the Hyacinth.