One of my favorite garden quotations is the comment E.B. White made about his wife’s determined planting of bulbs each fall, no matter how cold the weather in their Maine garden.
Katherine gathered together her bulbs, no matter the weather and no matter her health, which was unreliable, and put the bulbs into the ground while "calmly plotting the resurrection."
It is that element of hope and confidence that the future will come and be better that makes gardening such a pleasant chore for me and so many people.
Those who have turned to gardening for the first time during this pandemic have had a taste of that. Any time you put a seed, a bulb, a new plant into the ground, you are expressing your innate optimism that life will go on and hopefully be better in the future.
Just the act of planting makes us more cheerful and optimistic. We plant trees that we might never see grow to maturity because we know that someone in the unknown future will enjoy their shade or fruit or nuts or graceful beauty.
October is a great month for planting. All kinds of plants can go into the ground this month:
• Cool-weather vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, broccoli, beets and others
• Fragrant and useful herbs — cilantro, garlic, oregano, thyme, bay tree and more
• Container-grown trees including fruit, nut, shade and flowering trees
• All wildflowers, from poppies to bluebonnets
• Spring bulbs
Bulbs are hidden treasures that lie quietly underground gathering their strength to herald springtime and another season of growth and productivity.
We plant bulbs in the season opposite when we want them to bloom. Spring bloomers go into the ground in the fall, and fall-blooming bulbs go into the ground in the spring.
During October, you can also divide your plants that have done well and share them with friends, neighbors and strangers.
The iris is not technically a bulb, but it behaves like one. It blooms in the spring and generally stays green throughout the year, multiplying beneath the soil until the time comes when it needs dividing. If your irises look crowded, that time has come to divide them.
Simply dig up the clump of leaves, being careful not to damage the underground roots and rhizomes. Gently pull apart the iris plants and clean off any dead leaves that cling, and then put them in their new home.
Bury the rhizomes just slightly below the surface so that the leaves are above ground and standing erect. Irises need good light to bloom well, so select a spot that gets full sun for at least a half-day. By spring, they should be settled in enough to be ready to flower.
I had never seen a rain lily (Zephyranthe) until I moved to Austin. Those tiny white flowers that pop up in lawns, along curbs and just about anywhere without warning and then disappear as quickly. It took me a while longer to find out that people actually plant rain lilies and that you can find them in a range of colors — white, pink, apricot, peach and other shades. These named varieties are larger, showier, and bloom longer than the semi-wild little singular white ones. Like the iris, after they’ve grown a while, your rain lilies might need dividing.
Rain lilies are true bulbs and, like other bulbs, multiply underground when they are not busy producing flowers. Unlike other bulbs, however, rain lilies bloom intermittently throughout the growing season. As the name implies, they are apt to burst into bloom after a heavy rain, whether it is in July, August or November. The grassy foliage is apt to stay evergreen in our mild winters.
Rain lilies like sun and most any kind of soil, though they will bloom better in richer soil. They do look better en mass, so don’t plant each bulb all along in a bed. Plant several in a general area so they have room to spread and so they will make a great statement when they flower.
You can also plant rain lilies in containers. In containers, place at least an inch of soil over the top of the bulbs. Generally, bulbs should be planted about twice as deep as they are tall.
Rain lilies are sometimes hard to find in nurseries. Check locally first, but if that fails, go online.
The right bulbs for Texas
When it comes to other bulbs, big box stores and some nurseries carry bulbs from Holland. Granted, bulbs grow great in Holland, especially tulips, but the fact is that Central Texas is very unlike Holland. Try to avoid Dutch bulbs if you want the flowers to produce perennially in your garden.
The bulbs that grow well here are ones that are adapted to our soil, rain and especially climate. Texan Chris Wiesinger wrote "The Bulb Hunter" about his fascination and work with heirloom bulbs in Texas. He also opened The Southern Bulb Co., southernbulbs.com, an online source for varieties of bulbs that will bloom year after year in Texas gardens.
In addition to the standard bulb varieties that should be planted in the fall for spring bloom — narcissus, daffodils, grape hyacinth, paperwhites and tulips — he also offers lilies of many kinds including rain, and bulb-related gifts. This site is a good spot to look and learn.
Bulbs are endlessly interesting, crazy easy to grow and gifts that keep on giving. Expand your horizons this fall by adding bulbs, tubers, corms or rhizomes that will give you something new to look forward to.
Keep feeding your optimism. Spring will come again, and nature will assert the beauty, sweet smells and infinite variety of new life.