There isn’t a bad time of the year to garden– fall is no exception. The weather is cool. There are few chores such as watering or weeding to distract from other fun fall tasks such as planting bulbs.
Gardeners can plant bulbs, corms and tubers that bring a riot of color heralding in spring anytime from late summer through late fall.
It is nice to know there is a long period during which one can plant bulbs. A skillful gardener may be able to plant until the ground has frozen though I don’t recommend it, as the roots should fully form before the ground freezes.
What Can I Plant This Fall?
There are numerous spring bulbs you can plant. Favorites include Daffodil, Crocus, Tulip, Scilla, Windflowers, and many others.
Bulbs aren’t the only fall planted flower, however — you can also plant Peonies, Hellebore, true Lilies and Anemones. While these can often be found as part of the selection for sale, we are concerned with bulbs today.
Bulbs are the dormant storage components that produce the roots, foliage and flowers for many spring plants.
Where Can I Buy Bulbs to Plant in the Fall?
There are many places you can purchase bulbs; there will be a fair selection in any large box store. The unfortunate aspect of buying at one of these locations, however, is it’s a standard selection. In other words, only mass-produced common varieties will be available, and few staff will know much about planting or care concerns.
Bulbs are such an intimate garden item that a bit of shopping will produce better choice options as well as any advice you may need.
Local garden centers will have a better selection than large box stores. Your local garden clubs will have the best choices as well as enthusiastic experts ready to encourage you to plant just a few extra bulbs more than you had planned.
This is one of those times when breaking your budget will be acceptable. You will be glad that you did plant a larger selection when spring arrives.
Buying Bulbs From Local Garden Clubs
These local garden clubs are selling cultivars donated by local member growers. The Indiana Daffodil Society is one group. They conduct a number of sales around the state, starting in mid August and running until stock runs out — usually mid to late September. They conveniently set up a booth at the local farmers market as one of their locations for sales.
You will also be glad to know that the organizers use every dollar from these sales to sponsor student scholarships by this organization. Each dollar is earmarked to help college students with their own garden interest studies and not to pay for some CEO’s gasoline for his or her boat on the lake. All bulb societies use monies from sales for philanthropic causes.
And, don’t forget that these local clubs will know a good bulb from a bad one. Bulbs should be light colored and dry. You should avoid any bulbs with dark spots. When you gently squeeze a bulb, it should feel solid and not soft. Reject any that are soft and mushy feeling. Be sure to smell your choices too. There shouldn’t be any smell. An off odor is a good sign of hidden rot.
Where (and How Deep) Should I Plant My New Bulbs?
Bulbs should be planted in well-prepared sites. Mix a generous amount of compost in the soil at the time of planting. This will provide a good chance for roots to form easily their first year in the loose friable soil. Compost decomposes slowly, which will provide a mild fertilization that will benefit growth, bloom and reproduction.
The number one problem people encounter when planting bulbs is that they plant them too deep. They often do this with the belief that a deeper hole will keep the bulb from freezing, but this isn’t actually a concern, and here’s why.
The soil freeze depth for Zone 6, for example, is 18 inches on average. Recent severe winter temperatures almost doubled this freeze depth. What this means is — unless you dig holes deeper than 18 inches, the bulbs will freeze during the winter anyway, but clearly, a bulb planted that deep will never have a chance to sprout and bloom.
Bulbs have developed through evolution so that freezing is expected as part of the yearly growth cycle. Don’t worry about them.
Frequently a preferred planting depth is given for planting bulbs. The intention of this number is to give an idea of how far the base of the bulb should be from the soil surface. Instead of following a “hole depth” requirement it is better to use another method.
Bulbs only need a small amount of soil on top of the bulb. Plant your bulbs so there is no more than 2 inches of soil covering the top of the bulb. It should be of no concern if bulbs are exposed to open air.
Planting Bulbs: Which Way Is ‘Up’?
You can tell the top of the bulb from the bottom a couple of different ways.
The usual manner is to look at the general shape of the bulb. The root end is often broadly rounded while the top or growing part is more pointed. This method usually works for the larger bulbs like Daffodils and Tulips.
Sometimes this is harder to observe with smaller bulbs like Crocus and Scilla. Another method is to look for an aureole design on the bulb. The roots from the past will often leave a circular discolored area where they will come out again. This side should be planted down.
Even if you goof up and plant the bulb upside down it will still grow. Over the course of the next couple of years the bulb will re-orient itself or at least produce bulb-lets that will grow correctly and at a depth they prefer. This is again a natural evolutionary quality for bulbs. It is not uncommon for bulbs to relocate in the garden for a number of reasons like erosion or even small rodents pushing the bulbs out of their way when digging.
These bulbs left alone will soon grow without any help right on top of the soil. So, don’t fret if you accidentally plant a bulb upside down. And, don’t be concerned about bulbs that are displaced and left to the open air unless it bothers you to see them growing this way.
Achieving a Carpet of Color With Bulbs
One garden design effect I like is to have a carpet of color. Many of the smaller bulbs like Scilla, species Crocus and Snowdrops will colonize large areas over time.
The initial goal towards this carpet of color is to plant a sufficient number of bulbs to reduce the overall time to produce this result. Planting one of these bulbs every couple of square feet in the garden should produce this visual result in about 10 years.
The trick in the spring is to allow these small bulbs to seed. This may mean allowing the grass to grow a bit longer than normal before mowing. Wait until the little seed pods are browning and splitting open before cutting the grass. This may mean only missing a couple of spring mowings. The seed produced will help populate the area in addition to bulb division.
Collecting and distributing seed is an easy way to encourage the carpet of color in the spring more quickly. Letting the mower blow the ripened seed about is an even better solution.
Amending the Soil for Freshly-planted Bulbs
Freshly-planted bulbs will not need any fertilizer. However, a dusting of bone meal will help produce better quality bloom for a few seasons. It is best to dust the bulb in the hole. Phosphorous, the desired element in bone meal, doesn’t easily travel through the soil, and phosphorous is important for bloom.
After planting, following bloom in the spring while the bulbs show their growing foliage, is a good time to fertilize with a well-balanced fertilizer. This is yet another reason for not planting your bulbs too deep. The Phosphorous in the balanced fertilizer will have a better chance of reaching the growing and dividing bulbs that are closer to the surface.
Bulbs are easy-to-care-for plants. They don’t require much additional attention. If you forget to fertilize, they will still reward you with color in the spring. Certainly don’t use a herbicide on grass that has had bulbs planted with it, however.
Using a weed and feed blend of fertilizer is a fast way to kill most of your bulbs. Dandelions are a small annoyance to endure for early spring color from your small bulbs.
Pests and Bulbs
Few pests affect these spring bulbs. Tulips are perhaps an exception, as burrowing rodents can eat the bulbs, and deer will find the bloom and foliage tasty. Plant your tulips in protected areas. Some go so far as to wrap the bulbs in chicken wire to prevent soil burrowing rodents from eating them.
Over-watering, especially in areas you wish to naturalize, can encourage fungal disease. Generally as long as gardeners use moderate watering, there shouldn’t be much trouble. Cut back on watering in the event you notice circles of loss in the spring.
You can also treat with mycorrhizal inoculants containing Tricoderma species spores. This genus will attack and kill the pathogenic fungi feeding on your bulbs. Once you find the fungal disease is corrected, you can replant those damaged sections.
Planting Fall Bulbs
That’s all there is to fall planted bulbs. Be sure to stock those areas of the garden clearly visible from your windows first. Winter and spring battle each other for control.
Watching spring plant life beginning with a cup of Joe while standing in a window on a cold blustery day is often enough to initiate Spring Fever without being uncomfortable outdoors.
Be sure to support philanthropic organizations selling bulbs for their superior quality, selection and advice. Then sit back and wait.
Your reward will be well worth the small amount of effort required. And, don’t forget that planting fall bulbs is an excellent project for young children. They won’t be able to damage or not plant any of the bulbs correctly. Planting bulbs is an excellent time to bond with your child as well as expose them to easy gardening activities.