While rummaging through some old cookbooks recently, I came across a 25-year-old Rodale gardening book titled “Great Garden Shortcuts” and started paging through it. I don’t recall ever seeing this publication before, so it must have been a second-hand–store purchase that was pushed to the bottom of the pile of old books. I was pleasantly surprised at how much useful information I found within, especially the section on bulbs, because it’s that time of year again, when we try to remember where more bulbs are needed, search around in the shed for some bonemeal and postpone planting until we’re guaranteed to be chilled to the bone while digging. Each fall I wonder if it’s worth it to plant spring-flowering bulbs, but, given our lengthy, monochromatic winters, we need the prospect of those colorful flowers to get us through.

In theory, spring-flowering bulbs — whether they be narcissus, tulips or grape hyacinths — are easy to grow. Just plant them in fall, in spring they come up. This is especially true if you have a meadow or no-mow area where these bulbs can be left on their own to bloom, die back, and naturalize at will. On a site like that, you can plant handfuls of bulbs in large holes: use a shovel to dig up a chunk of sod, toss the bulbs in, then replace the sod and tamp it down. For a natural look, position the holes randomly, some closer together than others, with varying numbers and types of bulbs in the holes. Some groupings should be all of a kind, as if they’ve been spread by nature. Autumn rains will encourage the bulbs to set down roots, and in spring, the flowers appear.

It gets a bit trickier when you’re planting in mixed perennial beds, and my new best friend, the “Garden Shortcut” book, had some good suggestions gleaned from Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, a top Virginia bulb supplier. If, like me, you invariably dig up the previous year’s bulbs when planting new ones, Heath suggests planting grape hyacinths as markers. Surround your spring bulbs with a sweep of these tiny bulbs and their foliage will come up in the fall, just when you’re ready to plant anew or fertilize previous years’ bulbs. If you don’t have any grape hyacinth bulbs on hand, you can go for colored golf tees, which are bright enough to mark your plantings but unobtrusive in the summer beds.

The book also suggests using tees as markers if you plan to rescue any bulbs from abandoned home sites or areas where they’ve become overgrown and have few blooms. We have lots of these orphans scattered around our place, where they sport lush foliage but scanty blooms each spring and soon disappear into the leaves of the lilacs and raspberries that are choking them out. I always want to rescue them when I see them blossoming, but the American Daffodil Society says it’s best to wait awhile because, while disturbing bulbs when they’re in flower won’t kill them, it can cause them to skip a season of bloom. So if you’ve spotted some wayward daffodils, wait a couple of months before digging and, meanwhile, mark the spots with golf tees before the bulbs go dormant. Then, when the foliage has faded, you can still find your freebie bulbs.

For the most prolific blossoms, my book recommends feeding your bulbs every fall. We don’t often feed perennials, as they do quite well without a rich diet, and while we may sprinkle bonemeal in with our new bulb plantings, it isn’t a great fertilizer by itself. It’s a good source of calcium and phosphate but doesn’t have any of the nitrogen, potassium or trace elements bulbs need. As Heath points out, most bulbs multiply by two each year. By the time they’ve multiplied to 16 bulbs in the same spot, they’ve used up all the nutrients in the soil around them. So if your bulbs aren’t blooming as well as they used to, give them a hit of organic fertilizer that’s especially compounded for bulbs. When planting in the fall, just sprinkle it over the top of the soil. If you forget to fertilize in the fall, try a few rounds of liquid kelp on your beds in the spring.