Fall Is For Planting

planting-bulbs.jpgI like planting in the fall.  The weather is cooler, and the rain more reliable.  The work of it seems easier. Some plants are not so happy with a fall planting.  I like to delay planting beech, birch, magnolia and dogwoods until the spring.   Other species readily transplant in the fall, when they are dormant.  Dormant plants suffer the trauma of transplant more readily when they are sleeping . I am uneasy about planting perennials much past the end of September, for fear they will not have enough time to root before the frost heaves them every which way- including out of the ground.  However, it is never too late to plant spring flowering bulbs.  Should you be able to get your shovel in the ground in February, the bulbs you bought in October will most likely be fine-provided you stored them in a cool spot.

spring-flowering-bulbs.jpgThis is our bulb planting week.  We are tackling this project for clients later than usual-it has been a very busy fall.  Most of our projects involve large spaces planted with tulips for spring.  But we do have those people for whom we add a little of this and a little of that every year.  No matter the scale of your garden, and the spaces you have available for spring flowering bulbs, taking the time to plant them is well worth the effort.  When the winter breaks here in March, and the crocus come into bloom-that is a day I treasure.  Both the Farmer’s Almanac and the National Weather Service is predicting a very cold and very snowy winter here.  There is everything good about defending your gardening self with some spring flowering bulbs.

spring-flowering bulbs.jpgThe spring flowering bulbs include tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and a whole host of small flowering bulbs.  Don’t forget the alliums, which will bloom in June.  All of the nurseries local to me have bulbs available.  It seems like preaching to the choir to be encouraging gardeners to plant spring bulbs, but I have my reasons.  Planting bulbs is just about the least satisfying planting done in the garden all year.  When it is cold, windy, and wet, you are out there burying brown blobs in the dirt.  When you are finished planting, you have nothing to show for all the work. Even more discouraging is the fact that the show is months away.  I wouldn’t say that bulb planting is particularly pleasant for gardeners-it takes effort in conditions that are usually less than ideal.  But the rewards in the spring-enormously satisfying.

planting-for-spring.jpgAs difficult as it may be to generate excitement for a job with no immediate rewards, the pleasure to come is worth the wait. Each one of those brown orbs is loaded with the promise of the gardening season to come.

spring-flowering-bulbs-in-pots.jpgI plant a lot of bulbs in pots.  I find this easier than trying to imagine where my perennial garden might need tulips, or where I planted daffodils last year.  I do not force the bulbs I plant in containers.  I bury them under a huge pile of leaves, or store them in the garage, and bring them out early in March.  I want them to bloom at the same time that they are blooming in the garden.  Pots of spring flowering bulbs can be placed on a front porch, or by the back door, or dropped into a container.  I like that I can move them around.

white-hyacinths.jpgThis may seem counter intuitive, but bulbs in pots will rot if they freeze solid through and through.  The temperature of the soil is always warmer than the air temperature-but bulbs in pots do not have the luxury of the protection of the ambient warmth of the ground.  There are certain places in our shop garage that are good for storing planted pots of bulbs.

grape-hyacinths.jpgSpring flowering bulbs are programmed from the start to come up, throw leaves, and bloom.  Very little gets in the way of the way of that.  I have had good luck repotting spring bulbs already in bloom into different containers, providing I handle them carefully.  We did these grape hyacinths in little pots with the bulbs exposed for an event.

daffodils.jpgMiniature daffodils handle life in a pot a liottle better that the large flowered varieties.  If I do pot up big growing daffodils,  I keep the soil level well below the rim of the pot.  That rim helps to keep the flowers and leaves standing upright.  If I do bring potted flowering bulbs indoors, I try to find a relatively cool spot for them.  An ideal spring for bulbs in the ground depends on cool weather during the day, and chilly weather at night.  Once the weather gets warm, spring bulbs will fade.

spring-flowering-bulbs.jpgThe bulbs it would take to make a handsome spring garden could fit in a modestly sized box. I would seize one of the few remaining warm afternoons we will have, in pursuit of a little spring color.

box-of-bulbs.jpgA little box of spring flowering bulbs makes a big statement about spring.

tulips-blooming.jpgtulips in the spring – indescribably delicious.



This past November, I planted a slew of spring flowering bulbs in containers.  My crumbly compost based soil came from the most mature of Steve’s compost hills.  Friable, this soil.  I knew my bulbs would be happy.  True bulbs are extraordinary, in that they house the leaves and flowers intact, and ready to grow, in an embryonic state.  An entire blooming plant exists inside, ready to grow when the conditions are right.  Wow.  Though I have been curious, I have never had the heart to slice a tulip bulb in half to see what was inside-it always seemed like such a waste of a life.  So I believe what I read about this.  

My bulbs were planted in November; they need time to root before the ground freezes hard.  Planting them too late can be a problem, should winter arrive unexpectedly early.  I have been told that bulbs do not freeze hard through and through when planted in the ground.  Should they freeze too hard, they will rot when they thaw.  I find this hard to believe, as we routinely have frost that penetrates the ground of a depth of 42 inches, but perhaps a solid freeze is different than deeply penetrating frost.  This means container planted bulbs need some winter protection, as their roots are actually above ground.  But should they be wintered in too warm a location, they will not get the chilling they need. 

We moved the pots into the garage in late December; I did worry I had left them outside too long.  The shop garage is much larger than a car garage, so space was available.  We placed them as close to the adjacent heated space as possible, although we only heat that space to 45 degrees in January and February.  Bulbs require a period of chilling.  Cold temperatures induce a biochemical response that triggers the growth of that embryonic flower.  Gardeners in frost free zones have a tough time growing bulbs unless they provide a proper chilling period. A refrigerator dedicated to chilling bulbs-I love that idea.

Different bulbs have different requirements for chilling.  Tulips need 14-20 weeks.  Chionodoxa need 15.  Once a bulb has experienced the cold it needs, it can take 2-3 weeks from breaking ground to bloom.  My bulbs in containers-I am not forcing them.  By this I mean I am not engineering a chilling time that would allow me to have flowers ahead of the normal spring season.  I like them to bloom at exactly the same time as they would were they planted in the ground.  I just like the idea of bulbs blooming in boxes, or terra cotta pots.  I can move them around, or group them on my front porch.  I could use a pot of tulips as a centerpiece, or a gift for a friend who is under the weather.   

I do not heat my garage space; the extremely cold temperatures we had in February made me worry that the bulbs had frozen too hard.  I checked a few pots by knocking the root ball out of some pots-they all seemed well rooted and fine.  I cannot account for why this completely unheated space works.  Though it is unheated, it probably is not nearly as cold as the out of doors.  Perhaps geothermal heat plays a part in keeping the bulb pots just warm enough.  No matter the science, I am seeing my bulbs beginning to break ground.  You may wonder why I have covered my pots with landscape fabric, as well you should.  Our resident cat, MCat, loves nothing better than digging into the dirt, or sharpening his claws on the trunks of old boxwood topairies we store here over the winter.   

The landscape fabric and some low tech readily available weights keeps him out of these pots.  Like countless other people, we accomodate the local wildlife.  As you can see, the bulbs are stirring.  I know that many plants go dormant in response to a season that cannot support growth.  I know that low temperatures slow the chemical activity in plants as a survival strategy. But I cannot decide if these bulbs have been truly dormant.  I think there has been a small fire burning here, all winter.   

These pictures of pots of dirts with an occasional green or red shoot hardly seem exciting at first glance-you are right about that.  But what is happening below the surface, and barely poking through the surface means spring is not far off-I find that incredibly exciting.