Fall Bulbs


August 20, 2020

Courtesy of Mike Heath

Flowers bulbs - the lower two bulbs are ready to divide into two separate plants.

Fall will be here before you know it and with it the time to plant your fall bulbs. With planting just a few months away the time to start thinking about what you want to plant is now. Now is the perfect time because the Laramie County Master Gardeners Fall Bulb Sale is in full swing. These are the bulbs you won't find in a store yet will grow well here. It's also time to plan your landscape design for next year. For some of us (and I include myself) that's pretty easy since we don't change much year to year. But if you're a gardener who changes the flower beds each year, those plans and designs are important.

When I talk about fall bulb planting I'm really talking about a wider variety of plants. Many of the plants we traditionally include as "bulbs" really aren't. Take the iris for example. If you look at the roots, it isn't that clean, rounded bulbous shape. That's because it isn't a bulb. That type of root is called a corm. Think of it as a very thick rhizome. A bulb has a distinct rounded shape, like an onion. They may be sectioned, like garlic, or a single layered structure. Corms and bulbs both will divide and form sections that can be taken off to start new plants. For the purpose of this article I'll call them all bulbs since they behave essentially the same.

Around the end of September into October will be the time to divide your bulbs and is also a good time to prepare the soil to accept the new bulbs. Dig up your current bulbs very carefully to avoid damage. It's best to dig a wide space around the bulb, then work inward. Once the bulb is out of the ground carefully brush of the excess soil without damaging the small roots that come off the bulb. This is when you can check each bulb for growth that can be broken off for new plants. For a bulb it will look like a second bulb forming on the side of the mature bulb. For a corm it will appear as a smaller root growing off to the side of the main root. These can be carefully snapped off and replanted.

For some plants, such as gladioli, you'll want to store them over the winter and replant in the spring. They don't overwinter in our climate. To store bulbs brush as much excess dirt off as possible without damaging the bulbs. Set the bulb in a cool, dry location and allow it to dry for a week or so. Humidity has a lot to do with the drying time. This week the humidity is great, about 16 percent at my place. Two weeks ago it was about 60 percent with all the rain we were having. Once they've dried brush off more soil if necessary. The goal is to leave as little soil on the bulb as possible. Soil serves to attract moisture and will cause the bulb to rot. Wrap the bulbs loosely in newspaper and store in a cool, dry location. Check the bulbs periodically over the winter to make sure the newspaper isn't damp. If it is let the bulbs dry again and replace the newspaper.

Fall planting should occur as late as possible as long as you can still get a shovel or spade in the ground and it isn't too cold to be outside. Early November is usually a good time. We'll have had a couple of snows but the ground won't be frozen yet. You can amend your soil early if needed so that you're prepared to plant. By the way, loose soil digs easier. Bulbs have a variety of planting depths so be sure to research what the recommended depth is for the bulbs you purchase. Depths can range from just a few inches to 12 inches deep. It's almost hard to believe bulbs planted at 12 inches will come up in the spring but they do. I plant garlic cloves at six inches and the bulbs are almost at the surface of the ground at harvest.

Bulbs aren't just for the flower bed, though. For a little color in your lawn, plant some early blooming bulbs at various locations throughout the yard. They'll bloom early for color and be finished by the time the grass is ready to mow. Then just mow them off. Some bulbs will come up and bloom even with snow on the ground. That's a very pretty, and welcome, sight early in the spring. It lets us know that warmer weather is right around the corner. If you're going to plant bulbs out in the yard, plant in odd-numbered groupings: 3, 5, 7, etc. That grouping is more pleasing to the eye than even-numbered groupings. In the yard you don't have to follow a pattern as you would in a flower bed. Just the random splashes of color alone are enough to uplift our spirits.

In the flower beds, or other "improved" site, you'll want to take a little more care with the design. The odd-numbered planting rule still applies, but you may have a specific pattern that you want to follow. It could be by color, or type of plant or whatever else you choose. Here, balance is the most important factor. In the flower bed, a layered approach works well. There are two aspects to consider here. The first is the time the plant will bloom (spring, early summer, mid-summer, etc.) and the second is the height of the plants in the flower bed. All of the plants are there to be seen so you don't want some to be covered up by taller plants in front or by placing early bloomers where they won't be seen. Plan so that the taller plants are towards the back of the flower bed if it's against a structure or toward the center in an open bed. Then layer down in height and bloom time. Normally the smaller bulb plantings, like grape hyacinths, would be on the edge of the bed with large plants, like peonies, toward the back or center. Some plants, like lilies, are narrow and open yet tall and can be placed almost anywhere without blocking the view of other flowers. Having pants with a mix of bloom times and spacing them throughout the bed will ensure color throughout the entire season. Using markers or water-based spray paint will help place your bulbs exactly where you want them.

There are a variety of tools available to plant bulbs. There's the old cone-shaped planter that works well as long as it stays in one piece. I must be hard on them because I tend to twist the handles off. They're also limited in depth. Bulb augers work great for single bulbs but they tend to be expensive. For small bulbs I have an old auger drill bit that works well. It's no longer any good for wood so drilling dirt won't hurt it. I can just mark the depth with a piece of tape and drill to my heart's content. A spade works in loose soil but can be a killer if the soil's hard. But don't count out the old standby, the shovel. Shovels come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes and are usually easier to use than a spade in hard soil. It also moves more soil faster. Once you've planted the bulb cover it loosely with soil. Don't pack it hard.

If you're interested in something different from everybody else, check out the Master Gardener's website at http://www.lcmg.org to see what bulbs are available this year. It's always a surprise because the selection changes every year. And don't forget, if you have any questions ask a Master Gardener. It's what we do.


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