Forget the bone meal; use compost for bulbs

Yikes! I’ve been doing it wrong all these years: Using bone meal when I plant bulbs.

“MYTH BUSTED!” was the headline of a recent article in Garden Gate Magazine. The article announced, “Bone meal is actually not a great bulb fertilizer.” I was shocked. The article went on to say “…the amendment contains a lot of phosphorous and calcium which most garden soils already have in abundance.” It recommended feeding bulbs with compost instead.

Don’t get me wrong, I love compost and spread it religiously in my flower beds. But as a substitute when planting bulbs? I was skeptical.

So, I turned to our trusty Oklahoma County OSU Extension Horticulture Educator Julia Laughlin, who directed my query to David Hillock, the State Master Gardener Coordinator with OSU Extension, who, lo and behold, agrees.

His response: “As with any application of nutrients/minerals, organic or inorganic, it is common to just recommend that which has been accepted for eons; however, like any fertilizer application, it should be based off a soil test. So even though bone meal is the “go to” nutrient for bulbs because of tradition, it should only be applied if there is a deficiency in phosphorus.”

Eons. That’s how long I’ve been planting fall bulbs that way. Dig a hole, sprinkle with bone meal, plop in a bulb. Repeat. Rows and rows, cluster after cluster, in the ground or in pots, daffodils, hyacinths, snowdrops.

True they seem happy; most have even multiplied over the years. But it makes me wonder how much healthier, how much more prolific they might be if I used compost instead of bone meal.

Hillock referred me to an article by a Washington State University Extension Horticulturist, Linda Chalker-Scott, “The Myth of Beneficial Bone Meal.” In it she describes the scientific problems with using bone meal and offers suggestions for what to do if you have added too much phosphorus over the years. (

This fall I’m going to back off the bone meal and give compost a try (and keep her ameliorating suggestions handy, just in case). But first I must decide which new bulbs to buy.