The trick to ensuring bulbs are safe and happy all winter long is to keep them uniformly cool.
Like children, fall bulbs do best when they have a good bedtime routine. Here’s how to put your fall bulbs to bed in the fall and maintain your garden after planting them so that they wake up in the spring happy and healthy.
The Best Time to Plant Fall Bulbs
The ideal time for planting fall bulbs, for the majority of the U.S., is when soil temperatures reach 50 to 60°F. That’s the time when bulbs root the quickest; they’ll root within two weeks. Once they make their roots, their cell walls become elastic. It’s almost like they have antifreeze.
And because spring-flowering bulbs are from the northern hemisphere, they’re used to extremes in temperatures. So once they make their roots, they don’t freeze.
Protect Edible Bulbs with Repellant
Some fall bulbs, like tulips and crocuses, are quite edible. So if you have critters like deer, rabbits, squirrels, or voles, you may want to spray or dip these bulbs in repellant before you plant them. The repellant smells bad, masking the sweet fragrance of the bulbs and deterring the critters from going after them.
We tend not to recommend the pre-emergent herbicides that people sometimes put on their lawns—so don’t use them on your bulb beds. Instead, use mulch.
Keep the Bulbs Uniformly Cool with Mulch
The trick to ensuring bulbs are safe and happy all winter long is to keep them uniformly cool. So after you plant, it’s valuable to put mulch on top of the soil. Not only does mulch keep the bulbs uniformly cool, but it also inhibits weed seeds by cutting off the light that encourages germination. The Lord has a great supply of weed seeds. We call them wildflowers and we can edit them out with mulch.
A third benefit of mulch is that it slowly adds organic material to the soil, and the microbes decomposing it turn it into usable nutrients that the bulbs can utilize. You’re feeding those much-needed microbes in the soil with mulch.
So, mulch is very helpful. Just remember that it adds to the depth of the bulb, but generally it’s not harmful if there’s an extra inch or two of mulch on top of them. And make sure to keep track of where the bulbs are by marking them!
Mulches That We Like
Mulches that we like are loose and freeable. Aged wood chips are fine. Make sure they’re aged—that they’ve gone through heat, so they no longer heat up in the composting process, just gradually decompose. Bark works great, and ground-up leaves are superb, because you’re feeding the microbes in the soil, as you are with any mulch.
Pine needles, if you have them, are an excellent mulch. They have interesting nicknames around the country: pine tags, pine shats, so on and so forth. They’ve often been given a bad rap because in past literature, they were said to adversely impact the acidity of the soil. But recent research has negated that theory. While they do add slightly to the acidity of the soil, they eventually neutralize. Pine needles also have unique stay-put qualities—they don’t blow away like leaves or float away like bark.
You can even use gravel! Fine crushed gravel works well, and it also helps to deter squirrels, voles, and other critters from going after edible bulbs.
Do You Water Bulbs After Planting in the Fall?
After planting, if it’s dry, water well several times after you plant. Fall bulbs don’t readily root in dry soil. In places where there’s a dry autumn and then a hard freeze, the bulbs can die because there’s not enough moisture in the roots. So take care to water during the fall if it’s a dry one.
What to Do Just Before Spring
During the winter, the bulbs are safe and happy in their bed, waiting for spring. Prior to spring coming, if you have more than two or three inches of mulch above them, you may want to rake a bit away, because the soil won’t warm up as quickly with the mulch on top. However, if you want the bulbs to bloom later, leave the mulch as it is.
Some bulbs are more sensitive to warmth in the spring, so if you have a warm early spring, they’ll be eager to arrive, especially if you rake some of your mulch away. Other bulbs are more sensitive to day length—the later bloomers. You’ll have to let them run their growing schedule according to daylight rather than temperature.
And Now, the Best Part: Enjoy Your Spring-Flowering Bulbs!
As the bulbs emerge, let them bloom and enjoy them! Also, remember that after they finish blooming, it’s beneficial to deadhead: take the old flowers off including the ovaries. You want to deadhead because 30% of the plant’s energy will go into seeds, and you want that energy to go back to the bulbs so you can enjoy their flowers for several more seasons!
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