The sudden, dramatic temperature drop reminds us the garden will soon go dormant with plants settling in for a long winter’s nap. Or, in our normally temperate climate, a short snooze.
Bulb are the first signs of renewal in the garden. They peek up from mulch, adding bright color when most things remain brown and dormant under a crunchy blanket of leaves.
Plant bulbs in November to ensure bulbs have time to cool in the ground to prepare for their emergence from February through May. For best results, we typically plant around Thanksgiving in Central Texas to ensure a beautiful spring crop.
Most local independent nurseries offer a nice selection of bulbs now. Websites and catalogs include a vast array of bulb choices. Winters in Central Texas might not get cold enough for some bulbs, so make sure you plant suitable bulbs. Look for those marked Zone 8, which covers the Austin area.
Be sure you can see the bulbs sold in bags and look for firm, papery bulbs; avoid soft, bruised or moldy bulbs.
While bulbs want a cold winter, they should be planted in a bright, warm spot in full sun or partial shade with well-drained soil. Most bulbs want five to six hours of sun per day. You also can refrigerate bulbs that require a longer cold period. Be sure to research specific needs for your bulbs.
Different bulbs need different planting depths. The general rule of thumb is to plant bulbs two times to three times deeper than the height of the bulb itself. Most packaging includes bulb-specific instructions.
You will find a variety of tools that may make bulb planting easier than a shovel. The most common is a hand bulb planter, a 9-inch-long cylinder with a round metal blade that allows you to kneel, push and twist down into the soil, removing a tube of soil as you pull it back up. These are available with an automatic soil release mechanism, a much better choice than shoving the plug out manually after digging the hole. It’s worth looking around to find one with this option. If you prefer to stand, long-handled planting cylinders are available as well.
For planting small bulbs in looser soil, a dibber provides another option. Metal with a tapered, pointy spike at the end, it punctures the ground to create deep, precise holes. Dibbers are available in straight, T or D handles, and kneeling or standing lengths.
Unless you plant in a raised bed, our clay and limestone make bulb planting a chore. That’s where the planting auger comes in. A large drill bit designed to fit on standard power drills and available in short or long length for kneeling or standing can make planting bulbs more manageable. In my opinion, a tool that requires less elbow grease is a must-have. The fact that it works with a power tool is an added bonus for those of us who have a thing for power tools.
With your tool of choice and bulbs in hand, start digging. Make sure you follow instructions for the proper planting depth.
Plant nose, or growing point, up and roots, or wide basal plate, down. Fill the hole with fertilizer and water well. For years, gardeners have used bone or blood meal to provide nitrogen to bulbs when planting. But it has come under scrutiny for slaughterhouse sources. As an alternative, many growers recommend compost or fertilizer with phosphorus, potash or alfalfa meal.
Even though the bulbs are hiding underground, don’t forget all plants continue growing roots and need water throughout winter, especially if it doesn’t rain much.
If you garden with deer, they typically leave daffodils, jonquils, paperwhites, irises and grape hyacinths alone, though they may paw them up when you first plant them. You might want to put up a barricade or netting over the planting area the first few weeks because deer might be attracted to the freshly turned earth.
Once your beautiful bulbs have bloomed in the spring, be sure to leave the strappy leaves on the plants until they have died back and turned yellow. This allows the energy in the leaves to revitalize bulbs for next year. This food is then stored in the white fleshy part of the underground bulb for next spring.
Spend a little time in the garden working off your Thanksgiving meal and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful blooms come spring.
Local landscape designer and garden coach Diana Kirby provides landscaping tips at dianasdesignsaustin.com and writes a garden blog at sharingnaturesgarden.blogspot.com.