It’s early fall and my thoughts have turned to next year’s garden. I love the change of seasons; winter just overstays her welcome. By late January, I find myself staring longingly out my windows, imploring it to end. I often wonder if my neighbors think I’m watching them as I’m in my windows frequently pondering possibilities and plant combinations. Admittedly, I’ve come to learn their comings and goings during these moments that grow more frequent as winter drags on. Am I that creepy plant lady? Nah. I throw up a wave should they get suspicious. I suppose if I whipped out binoculars there definitely would be cause for concern.
But I’ve found that a bit of bulb planting in autumn helps to assuage the winter chill. My fall ritual is really just hope spelled out in horticultural terms. A sort of therapy that helps to remind me that the moment these spring blooming bulbs reveal themselves in late February, winter is releasing her grip ever so slightly. At least that’s the hope. Living in the Chicago area, one never knows exactly when she might dish out a polar vortex or tease us with a 70 degree day in January. That first glimmer of green is my classy way of giving winter a great big middle finger.
Sometimes You Just Have to Cheat
I’m not an advocate of sneaking around on your spouse or significant other. But in my case, it was absolutely necessary. My husband has a thing for lawns. What is it with guys and their grass? Seems like an opportunity lost. Every year he complains about having lost more grass to my garden. And he’s right. I slowly impinge on his territory as I acquire new plants and relocate others.
I’d been stockpiling crocus bulbs waiting for the perfect opportunity to descend upon his lawn. He left for work and I spent the day tucking in tiny bulbs beneath the grass. When he returned that afternoon, I wondered if I’d left any evidence behind. But he never knew the difference. Until this March when he thought the tiny tufts of strappy leaves were a new early-spring weed he’d never seen before. As he considered a new weed and feed fertilizer, I came clean. He rolled his eyes.
Purple crocus bouquets remained scattered across our lawn in time for Easter. Even he paused to admire them. Their leaves are only prominent while the grass is still dormant and then they recede and become unrecognizable. I’m not sure what the effect will be when my husband puts down our yearly fertilizer application. That’s still a point of contention but I’m hopeful that the crocuses will return. If not, I’ll do it again. Covertly, of course.
When to Plant Spring Blooming Bulbs
There’s no steadfast rule for everyone, it really just depends on where you live. I’m in zone 5 and usually have the bulbs planted by mid November. Basically, gardeners in zones 4-7 should get them in several weeks before the ground freezes so they have time to set roots. A good gage is when nighttime temps hover between 40 and 50 degrees F. Gardeners in zones 1-4 shouldn’t wait for the calendar to tell them fall has arrived. Best to plant bulbs in August and September. Warm climate gardeners, or those living in zones 8 and up, will likely need prechilled bulbs as bulbs require a chilling period of 12 to 14 weeks in temperatures below 45 degrees F to bloom.
Where to Plant
Spring blooming bulbs are perfectly happy beneath trees and shrubs as they tend to bloom before trees leaf out. I have Ice Follies daffodils planted throughout my garden. They’re one of my favorites for both color and fragrance. But the ones planted on the north side of our home bloom a week or two later than the ones planted in our south-facing backyard. Warm air forces them out of dormancy sooner.
Beneath perennials like hostas and daylilies is another good choice as their foliage helps to camouflage the decaying leaves of bulbs. Bulb foliage should be left until it’s turned completely yellow. Cutting it back too soon jeopardizes the bulb’s longevity by depleting its food stores.
How to Plant Bulbs
Rule of thumb – avoid planting in straight rows. It’s unnatural. I’ve been envisioning a river of muscari along our front walk and the effect required that they be lined up like soldiers beneath the hostas and Millenium alliums. Within the allium I planted orange Darwin tulips called ‘Daydream’ that would bloom about the same time as the muscari. Bloom times vary from bulb to bulb so it’s important to know, especially if you want bulbs to bloom in unison or succession, if what you have is early, mid-, or late spring blooming. The packaging will tell you this.
To determine planting depth, plant bulbs two to three times as deep as they are tall. Larger bulbs like daffodils and tulips will be approximately eight inches deep from the bottom, smaller bulbs three to four inches. Sometimes, especially with the smaller bulbs, it can be difficult to determine which end is up. In this case, lay it on its side and it will right itself. Otherwise, plant it tip up.
Bulbs, like most plants, fare better in well drained soil. Work some organic matter like compost into the top twelve inches of soil and dig out an area to the required depth. As you prepare the bed, mix in some Espoma Organic Bulb-tone fertilizer. Determine how much based on the size of your planting area and the recommendation on the fertilizer. Set the soil aside for backfill. When shoots break through in the spring, apply another dose of fertilizer, following the package instructions.
Once everything is planted, water thoroughly, keeping in mind that the larger bulbs are a good distance beneath the surface. Fall planted bulbs need to set roots before the ground freezes. Providing enough water will ensure that happens. Be careful not to over water though, as this will cause rot. Check the soil from time to time following planting and if it’s dry an inch or two down, get the hose. Autumn rain fall in the past years has been sufficient enough that I haven’t had to provide additional water after the initial watering-in.
Dealing With Decaying Foliage
When the flowers die and the foliage becomes unsightly, don’t be quick to cut it back. Leave foliage intact until it has turned completely yellow. The photosynthetic process occurring in the decaying leaves helps to replenish the bulbs for the following year.
Remember that river of muscari (aka grape hyacinths) I envisioned along my walkway? It came true in April.
Crazy what a little autumn planting can do for winter weary spirits, isn’t it? For ideas on some interesting spring blooming bulbs, check out my post on alliums or tour the garden of a lady who knows how to make an impressive spring display.
Will you be planting bulbs in the coming weeks? Which ones?