Fall gardening tips from a horticultural meteorologist...
Hopefully everyone’s garden survived the deluge from tropical storm Lee’s remnants. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place with all of Lee’s voluminous moisture funneling up from the south and Hurricane Katia offshore, blocking Lee from progressing out of the area. While the onslaught of rain was one way to break a drought for good, it was probably not the best way. Fortunately, we are drying out nicely now as it is about time for one of my favorite garden endeavors, bulb planting.
If you have been gardening any amount of time you have probably planted bulbs. They are always a source of surprise for me, planting them, forgetting about them (it helps to have a short attention span), and then watching them emerge in the spring. I welcome you to share your best or worst experiences with bulbs. To me, they are a treasure not to be missed. Let me share some of my discoveries.
Bulb catalogs are a great source of inspiration and, to a certain extent, information too, but remember they are in the business to sell.
I jumped for those giant Darwin tulips and planted each in its own carefully dug hole. They were a delight, for the first year, but the second year, one out of a dozen returned.
Tulips do not appreciate our heat which degrades the bulbs and they do not like the abundance of clay soil we have, which keeps them too damp and often turns them to mush.
Don’t get me wrong, I still plant some for just the brief splendor. If you want repeat performers go for the Kaufmanniana (Stresa shown here) or try Species tulips and most Greigii tulips. They are not as tall but can stand up to our climate and can actually multiply. I have had some that are going strong for 20 years!
Before going on, let me say a couple of things about planting. For most of our area, the best time to plant is mid-October to mid-November. Earlier planting can stress the bulb growth and later planting can cut short fall establishment.
Save yourself a lot of time and headaches by digging a bed to plant bulbs in, not individual holes. If your soil is mainly clay, mix in compost as you refill the hole. In areas prone to be wet, I often put down an inch of sand for the bulbls to rest on to keep them from sitting in water when it gets wet. Plant the bulbs as deep as you dare. With tulips, the rule of thumb is 6 to 8 inches but I usually aim for 10, since the deeper the bulb the cooler it stays and is still able to sprout up without much problem.
For long lasting bulbs, daffodils are real heroes (one of my favorites Actaea shown here). In fact, old, abandoned homesteads can still be identified in some areas of the country by beds of daffodils long after all the buildings have disappeared. If you think all daffodils look alike, take a look at a good garden website catalog like JohnsCheepers and you will be astounded at the hundreds of varieties. The different varieties bloom through a long period of the spring and range from the classic giant trumpets to the dainty jonquils.
Another favorite repeat performer is the crocus. One of the earliest bloomers, they are easy to plant in masses and a great kickoff to the start of spring, or in some cases the tail of winter. They come in many colors and sizes too.
I really like trying to pair up bulbs too. Crocus among snow drops (Galanthus) is a favorite. Finding combinations of tulips and daffodils is great fun too.
There are a multitude of other great spring bulbs that will wow you that I will touch on some other time, like iris reticulata, hyacinths, scilla, fritiallaria and camassia. All are a delight and most will hold up for a few years. So start shopping now, planting season is just around the corner!
Capital Weather Gang meteorologist David Streit is also an active gardener. He earned a certificate in landscape design from the USDA Graduate School and volunteered many years at the National Arboretum.