Garden Talk: Planting Bulbs In Fall For Spring Surprises

Air Date:
Heard On The Larry Meiller Show

A little time spent planting bulbs in the fall can bring welcome color after a long, cold Wisconsin winter.

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  • Garden Expert Says To Plant Bulbs Now For Early Spring Color

    Even with some nice, warm fall days ahead, there is no doubt that the gardening season will be wrapping up in Wisconsin pretty soon. But, before the hose and the tools are put away, there are some great things to get in the ground this fall to enjoy next spring.

    Planting bulbs in the fall is a great idea to ensure some early color in the spring, according to Patti Nagai, University of Wisconsin Extension horticulture educator for Racine County.

    Nagai said that “bulbs can pretty much meet whatever you’re looking for in your garden. Whether you’re looking for something little that’s going to bloom really early, or something gigantic that’s going to bloom later.”

    While tulips and daffodils are some of the most common, Nagai is a fan of alliums, which are in the onion family.

    “There are so many different sizes, and shapes and colors,” she said.

    For very early color that will come up right through snow, winter aconite is a favorite.

    “It’s one of the earliest that we see,” Nagai said, “with the beautiful yellow flowers.”

    Crocuses and dwarf irises also provide a lovely shot of color before anything else is up, she said.

    “They will brighten up those late winter days for sure,” she said.

    This is the right time to get bulbs in the ground, Nagai said. While some can be a bit “persnickety” about conditions and how they are planted, she said that looking for those listed as good for naturalizing are less picky about soil conditions and the like.

    Naturalizing means leaving them in the soil indefinitely, season after season. That’s in contrast to some bulbs, like gladiolas, that need to dug up and overwintered indoors.

    Bulbs that are left in place are lower maintenance and can help to fill in an area. Some varieties that Nagai said are good for naturalizing are daffodils, small-species tulips, dwarf irises, crocus, squills and grape hyacinths.

    But Nagai cautioned that their tendency is to spread.

    “If you don’t want them spreading across your lawn,” she said, “be careful where you plant them!”

    As for planting conditions, there are a few to keep in mind for a better success rate. Well-drained soil is always preferable, Nagai said, because “bulbs biggest enemies are standing water and rot.”

    While Nagai said that the bigger the bulb is, the deeper it should be planted, they also tend to take care of themselves pretty well.

    “A lot of times they will correct themselves to the right depth,” she said.

    So, a larger blub will sink lower, and a small bulb will move closer to ground level.Not only will bulbs correct gardener error in depth, Nagai said “they’re also pretty tolerant of being planted upside down.”

    That having been said, she encouraged gardeners to try and put them in oriented correctly, which is with the remnants of roots on the bottom, and at the right depth.

    “They will be much happier,” she said.

    It can be very frustrating though to see all of the bulbs that were just planted unearthed and upended by garden critters. Squirrels and chipmunks are likely culprits, Nagai said.

    “They love to know what you’ve put in there. And they love loose soil. They can’t resist it,” she said.

    Just about any bulbs are in danger of being unearthed and nibbled on. Even daffodils are vulnerable to being dug up, despite small mammals knowing that they are poisonous.

    Nagai said that disguising the fact that something was recently planted can help deter diggers. She will replace mulch over the newly planted bulbs “making it look like I was never there,” she said.

    Another option, especially if the bulbs are expensive or the size of the planting represents a lot of time and energy, is to lay chicken wire on top of the soil, under the mulch.

    “They just don’t like the feel of that metal wire on their little paws,” she said, “so they’ll just try one little dig and then they’ll go somewhere else where it’s easier.”

    There are repellents sold commercially, Nagai said, but they require persistence and several applications.

    The good news is that, according to Nagai, once the bulbs are established, the squirrels and chipmunks won’t bother them. So, protection is most important in the fall right after planting.

    For gardeners dealing with deer, the UW Extension Learning Store’s publication “Plants Not Favored by Deer” by Professor Laura Jull includes a list of bulbs that are less likely to be eaten. That publication is available as a PDF download here.

Episode Credits

  • Larry Meiller Host
  • Judith Siers-Poisson Producer
  • Patti Nagai Guest

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