Storm clouds roll in, the wind rattling the few remaining leaves off the trees. My woodland garden is full of wide trenches that snake between the withered mounds of leaves and stems that signify sleeping perennials. Stacks of bulbs in nylon sacks lie to my left in a neat line. Faded paper labels promise a future of startling gold, rose and orange. I lean over muddy trenches, tossing in bulbs. Around me, the garden has frozen back and gone dormant. Only the oaks remain, their frames masked in paper bag leaves. Maybe a few late cyclamen flowers still glow magenta in a sheltered corner or a couple of arum leaves. But the garden has gone to rest for the winter and I’m still standing by the side of a muddy trench, shovel in hand.
Scavenging the late fall bulb sales can enable everyday gardeners to enjoy fantastic flower displays like these drifts of daffodils at Missouri Botanical Garden.
Why am I here in the damp and cold? Like many gardeners, I started by planting a few bulbs early in autumn, with the Halloween chrysanthemums. The garden was full of growth, and I had to stand on one foot in order to get in and plant. The soil was still dry and hard, making planting difficult. When spring came, and I was greeted with six poor tulip flowers, three daffodils, and a single hyacinth, I was forced to reconsider my bulb strategy. So, the next autumn, I waited until most people were done planting, far into November, and scavenged the bulb clearance sales. And, to my surprise, the resulting display was fantastic — flowers as big and glorious as anything you’d see in a glossy gardening magazine.
After several years of following this tradition, I have discovered that late bulb planting offers many advantages. By the end of October, a few hard frosts have shocked back the perennials and turned the annuals to a soggy mess of withered stems. The above-ground shrinkage reveals open ground for bulb planting. Those same frosts have broken the clods of soil, already softened by autumn rains, making the ground friable and easy to work. And best of all, Thanksgiving bulb clearance sales enable even the most impoverished gardener to plant on a massive scale.
Be safe and plant the little bulbs, like these snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii), early in the fall before they dry out.
What does the wary gardener need to know before wholly embracing a late fall bulb-planting plan? First, bulb size matters. By mid-November, smaller bulbs (not more than 1 inch in diameter) will usually be dried out and unable to grow. Orders for anemones, fritillaries, snowdrops and other tiny bulbs should be places early in the season. Focus on the larger bulbs — daffodils, hyacinths, lilies and hybrid tulips. Their extra mass preserves the plant inside for longer periods of time than the little bulbs. If choosing bulbs out of bins, shop as you would for potatoes or nuts. Give them a tiny squeeze and feel their weight in your hand. They should be plump, full, and heavy for their size. Avoid any with significant damage or obvious fungal growth. A bit of mold on the outside husk is not problematic, as long as the bulb is not squishy and infected. If you are ordering by mail, it is essential to order from a reputable supplier that you know will send only high-quality plants.
Having adopted a late-planting strategy for large bulbs, how can the giddy gardener decide when to stop? In the Northern states, bulb planting stops when deep snow or frozen ground makes it impossible to shove a spade into the ground. Farther in the south, a later limit comes, not from the time when the ground freezes solid, but from the amount of time necessary for the bulbs to receive their full chilling requirements. For these purposes, consult chilling time charts, available through reputable bulb merchants or your local university extension.
Whatever the case, bulbs are resilient. Shove them in the ground and there is a good chance they’ll grow and be glorious. But for an actual strategy, don’t dismiss the notion of late fall planting. Cold fingers and a threat of rain only heighten the anticipation of future glory. After all, knowing that each of those funny parcels, wrapped in their husks, contains the promise of a flower is enough to warm the heart (if not the frozen toes) of any gardener.
Photos courtesy of Caleb Melchior.
Caleb Melchior has extensive experience growing bulbs and perennials after working at a specialty perennial nursery, Sugar Creek Gardens, in Kirkwood, Mo. He is currently studying for a master’s degree in landscape architecture at Kansas State University.