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Late Season Bulb Planting

Tips and techniques for planting your favorite fall flower bulbs.

Flower BulbsYour friendly Planet Natural Blogger is on the record saying that, depending how severe your winters, the best place to store any extra spring-blooming bulbs you might have is in the ground. Bulbs generally don’t store well inside and even those you carefully pack in containers of sawdust or peat moss and kept in the garage or basement (if it’s cool enough) aren’t all going to make it. Those that do will be something other than the bulbs you started with.

The common wisdom on planting flower bulbs in fall — tulips, daffodils, iris, hyacinths, crocus, and others — is that they should be planted at first frost. Some hardy bulbs, like the crocus colchicum, take to earlier planting than others. They need at least five weeks before the ground freezes hard to develop. In some northern and high elevation areas, that five-weeks is drawing to a close. Timing your planting, of course, depends on your particular conditions.

But in many areas of the country, you may still have five weeks before the ground freezes to a depth of two and more inches (even the smallest of bulbs are planted three inches or so deep). And what happens if your bulbs only get three or three-and-a-half weeks in the ground?

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We’re not suggesting by any means that you should wait until late in the season to plant your daffodils. But let’s say you’ve planted all the bulbs just where you’d planned to have them (it’s called “design”) back the last week of September. Now you have some left over. Rather than throw them away, we’re suggesting that you stick them in the ground somewhere appropriate, even if its way past time. They’ll most likely live on and provide some color next spring. Then, if you don’t like their placement, you can dig them up after they’ve flowered and and work them into the design next September.

We tend to like the flowers that grow from bulbs no matter where they’re planted, even (especially!) in natural lawns. We much prefer sticking any extra bulbs we may have in places that weren’t part of the original landscape map rather than throwing them away. Why not plant them at the edge of some large bush, where the mulch meets the grass, where the sun gets in?

You’ll probably be left with the less desirable bulbs, having planted the best in your earlier planting. Don’t keep any bulbs that are obviously diseased, badly broken, or otherwise damaged. Small nicks and loose skins are not a problem. In fact, says the University of North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, those loose skins, or papers as we’ll call them, encourage vigorous rooting. They also provide for easier inspection of the bulb for mold, fungus, and other problems.

Prepare the soil for the bulbs as you would any time you’re planting them. Check the soil pH if you don’t have a general idea of what it is. Bulbs do poorly with a soil pH of 7.0 or higher. Between 6.0 and 7.0 seems best. Work the soil to a depth of 18 inches and give them plenty of compost or organic matter. Good drainage is important. Flowering, fall-planted bulbs crave potassium. If you know your soil lacks the K (potassium) in the N-P-K ratio it wouldn’t hurt to add some organic potash or other potassium supplement to your soil.

Don’t be afraid to plant your leftover bulbs a bit deeper than normal. Those big bulbs you plant 8 inches deep? Give them another couple inches where the soil will freeze later or not at all. No doubt you’ve already planted all your biggest bulbs of any type flower you might have. Big bulbs means big flowers after all. Don’t be afraid to plant the smallest bulbs at five or six inches. Every inch of soil is another inch of insulation. Don’t pack the soil too tightly. About half the soil you dig up should go back into the hole, minus any compost or other amendments you might use.

Water is important to root development so give your fall-planted bulbs plenty. But be careful. You don’t want your ground soggy when a hard freeze is on the way.

Most important, cover your newly planted fall bulbs with a good four or five inches (or more) of mulch. Leaves are available to most of us in abundance this time of year. But chop them up — running the mower over them a couple times works, or you could use a shredder — so that they don’t compact easily as leaves will do, especially when wet. Your goal is to provide insulation, so look to give your mulch some loft, like the down in your jacket, by providing plenty of space for dead air to collect between chipped wood, cut-up prunings, or other green waste that will give shredded leaves some loft. Straw works, if you have it.

When your late-planted bulbs make an appearance in the spring — if they’ve been planted more deeply than other bulbs, be patient for them to appear — you just might find you like them wherever they happened to be. If they don’t fit into your grand landscaping plan and you want to move them elsewhere, wait until they’ve flowered and the plants have wilted before replanting. Cut the flowering part of the plant from the stem with shears or scissors. Then, come August, dig them up carefully.

We also think it’s OK to plant fall bulbs early, if you have them to plant, even in the summer if you’re sure they won’t dry out. It’s okay to store them a few weeks under that damp peat moss and replant them where you like when fall approaches.

Don’t try to separate the “cloves” or break the bulbs apart. If they’ve grown in a rooted tangle, you can trim some of the root away, but not too close to the bulb head. Leave them awhile in a dry place, protected from sun and rain, and allow them to cure before replanting, or just stick them into the ground.Same rules apply. Then look forward to enjoying another season of beautiful blossoms.

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