The cooler temperatures bring a pleasant relief from the heat earlier in the month. Shorter days, cooler temperatures and less water all help plants harden off for winter. Many gardeners have tired of planting, but there are a few tasks remaining before you can let the garden go to sleep for the winter.
One of those tasks, of course, is planting bulbs and winter annuals. Every spring I get numerous questions from individuals wanting to know how they can get those beautiful daffodils and other spring flowering bulbs in their yard. Of course the time to plant is right now. In some cases it means removing some of the annual flowers before they die so other plants get off to a good start before harsh winter weather.Planting bulbs early is important. The tiny embryo plants are contained inside the bulb and must develop a good root system before the soils freeze solid. Early planting enables them to develop good healthy root systems that will in turn ensure larger, more attractive flowers next spring. Bulbs tolerate a wide variety of soils and locations. You can find bulbs adapted to rock gardens, foundation shrubbery, flower beds or even rose beds. They look better if planted in clusters or groups rather than in single file rows. They tolerate a wide variety of soil types and do well in most soils except heavy clay soils with poor drainage. In those soils, mix large amounts of coarse organic matter to improve the drainage and the aeration.
Fertilizer is important when planting bulbs. Mix in a complete fertilizer prior to working the flower beds. Use one pound of 16-16-8 or similar fertilizer per 100 square feet. Apply a second application in late winter as bulbs emerge from the soil. Contrary to popular notion bulbs require large amounts of nitrogen not just phosphorous.
Daffodils, tulips and other large bulbs should be placed deeper than many gardeners plant them. They should be planted 6-8 inches deep because shallow planting encourages bulb damage, frost heaving and other problems.
When selecting bulbs, get only the best. Just as you would with any other garden planting, select those bulbs that are going to fit with your landscape design. Include your preferences for color, bloom period and height. A good garden design can be spoiled by inappropriate bulb selection or improper placement. When visiting a nursery, look for the high quality bulbs. In the case of bulbs, bigger is usually better. Bigger bulbs produce larger blossoms. Avoid soft or mushy bulbs. Squeeze them and look for mold or bruises. The papery skin on the outside of the bulb may be loose or torn. This does not damage the bulbs and they will do well after planting.
Avoid inexpensive, prepackaged sale items of mixed bulbs. These often contain very small bulbs and don't allow you to select the color, height or blooming sequence you'd like in your garden. Make sure that you are planting only desirable bulbs. Some bulbs, such as grape hyacinths or Star of Bethlehem, become very invasive and are extremely difficult to get rid of later on. There are many new bulbs developed each year. As you visit the nurseries select some of the new, exciting shades and flower forms to add to your garden.
One point to remember when planting bulbs is that they always look bad for longer than they look good. While there is nothing quite as spectacular as a bed of tulips, daffodils or hyacinths in full bloom, their bloom season is very short. Bulbs always do best with an understory of some other types of plants to cover their dying foliage as well as to give you some beautiful flowers in the spring.
Bulbs are also used to naturalize areas. Daffodils and crocus are good choices for this. These bulbs do not need to be dug up and divided annually as is needed with many other bulbs.
Winter annuals, biennials and even some per-ennials fit the category of good companion plants for bulbs. Familiar biennials include the pansies and violas. Mix those with some beautiful blue or pink forget-me-nots or mysotis. These delicate flowers add a delightful charm to the garden. Wall flowers (yes they really do exist) come in shades of yellows and oranges. They are hardy plants that do well and live throughout the winter to give you beautiful blossoms the following spring. The plants may be a little hard to find but are well worth planting. Arabis, aubrettia, sweet Williams and primroses also make excellent choices. Include with those basket of gold, creeping phlox, fox glove, candy tuft and dianthus. By including these plants, you avoid the bare soil and empty flower beds after the bulbs are removed.
As you plant young transplants of pansies and other flowers, fertilize the soil and water them well. They will need additional watering if we don't get additional rain and snow cover. In areas that are open and subject to extreme freezing and thawing, consider adding a light mulch of sawdust or other coarse materials to help protect them from cold winter temperatures and frost heaving. In a future article, we'll discuss how to force bulbs indoors for winter blooms.