Plant seeds of hope this fall with hardy bulbs

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It was the perfect fall day in 2016 when I planted bulbs around my grandmother’s garden for her 96th birthday. What else do you get a woman who has everything she needs and asks for nothing? Spending time outside together was a gift I knew she would appreciate and a memory I know I will never forget. As I worked in the garden that day, I had no way of knowing I was planting my own future. Just a few years later, her 100-year-old home was looking for new owners just as my family “nest” was emptying. Fortunate timing brought us to town and we began turning my grandmother’s North Salem house into our new home.

Months of reconstruction to this aging home overturned the surrounding yard, leaving piles of dirt and debris everywhere. We not-so-lovingly called it “the Great Mud Puddle of 2020” after grass seed refused to take and winter’s sop constantly moistened the exposed soil. As spring approached, I had little hope that our puddle would resemble anything akin to a yard. So it came as a huge surprise when I saw pops of color cascading around the garden early that spring. My heart couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Every corner of our little acreage had been dug up and turned over yet these little bulbs had persevered and bloomed where they were planted years before on that beautiful fall day spent with Gram. These bulbs displayed promise, the assurance of rebirth that accompanies an awakening spring. They furnished our home with joy as our yard began to feel more like a home and less like a torn-up construction site. To me, they were a sign. These little blooms gave me comfort that life goes on despite turmoil and loss. They were even possibly a housewarming gift from beyond.     

Hardy Hyacinths stayed strong during construction’s upheaval.

All it takes is a few autumn hours spent outdoors to grow these early signs of hope and optimism after winter’s darker days. “Everyone looks forward to color in the garden after the long winter,” says local horticulturalist Pam Pooley. These early bloomers are “often overlooked by gardeners in the design process,” says Pooley, but can bring continuous color from late winter through to early summer. She offers her guidance on how to jumpstart your garden’s appeal throughout the early growing season by following these few simple steps.

Local horitculturalist, Pam Pooley, offers her expertise to create early color in your garden. Photo by Ben Allen / HudValley Photo

A beginner’s guide to planting fall bulbs

Where to get bulbs:

Big box stores and your local Agway sell common varieties of bulbs this time of year. Online companies often have a larger variety with detailed information about the plant's characteristics, bloom time, and care. Some of Pooley’s preferred sites include Johnsheepers, Colorblends, and Whiteflowerfarm. When selecting bulbs, look for ones that are smooth, dry, and homogenous in color. Pooley warns to avoid bulbs that look “discolored, or have signs of rot”. If you are not able to get to planting right away, you can store the bulbs in a brown paper bag placed in the back of your refrigerator.

When to plant bulbs:

Mid to late fall is the best time for our area to plant. For these types of plants, the cold is what stimulates the bulb to begin sprouting roots. Typically, once the ground temperature is 55’F or below, bulbs are ready to be planted. You don’t need to take the temperature of your soil to get this right. A good guide for timing is after nighttime temperatures hover around 40’F for about two weeks. If your schedule is a little tight, don’t give up. Pooley advises that you can “plant into December as long as the ground isn’t frozen.”

How to plant bulbs:

Like any work, access to the right tools can make the process much easier (and more enjoyable). Bulbs are typically planted 3 times the depth of their height. This means for a 1-inch bulb in height, dig a 3-inch hole.

There are several tools to help you with this process. Pooley prefers a bulb auger. This attachment accompanies a household drill and does all the work to drill into the ground, creating the perfect hole for your bulb. Helpful hand-powered tools include the tulip spade; a shovel with a tulip-shaped edge to help cut into the ground. A Hori Hori is a useful Japanese tool with a long serrated edge and pointed tip to cut into the ground. For those who choose to stand and dig in their garden, use a T-grip spade. This taller tool behaves like a narrow shovel to create the hollow you need to place your bulbs. Bedford 2030 initiative has a Take It or Leave It (TIOLI) shed open to all that may have tools for planting. You can purchase these tools at garden centers, your local Agway and big box stores.

After you have dug the space, bulbs should be lowered with the pointy side up. If you are unable to distinguish the flat from the pointy side of the bulb, don’t worry. When this happens, gardeners recommend placing the bulb on its side. These robust growers will find their own way. Cover the bulb back up with the displaced soil and lightly water.

A full row of daffodils decorates a fence-lined yard.

What bulbs to plant:

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to planting is the design process. Bulbs are especially difficult to visualize since the plant is not in bloom as you plant it. Spacing and coordinating the timing of blooms are often where a beginner struggles the most. By following Pooley’s suggestions, you can select bulbs that will create continuous color in your garden this spring and create pairings that pop.

Late Winter Color:

“Hardy bulbs are so cool and the earliest color,” boasts Pooley. The first varieties to appear in late winter are Snow Drops (Galanthus). These little, white bell-shaped beauties can feel like they are hiding within the snowy landscape that may surround them. Pooley recommends planting “8-10 bulbs per square foot of soil to make a show”.

While they may only be four inches tall, the Crocus (Crocus vernus) is the first big display of color against the winter white backdrop. They come in a variety of colors- purple, yellow, white. Snow Drops and Crocuses can be planted in border gardens, as ground cover across lawns, or along rock gardens. Both of these plantings naturalize, meaning they will fill in more and more each year. They are deer and rodent-proof too!

Early Spring Color:

Playful blooms in yellow and white, Daffodils (Narcissus) are a crowd pleaser. These happy blooms can be planted anywhere in a yard or garden as bare trees promote all the sunlight they need to thrive. They are also deer and rodent-proof which makes growing in North Salem a true success. Plant a cluster of 6 bulbs per square foot for fuller rows along fences and garden edges.

Pooley loves these whimsical bloomers and encourages the gardener to have a little fun while planting them. To create a more natural look, she recommends the gardener “throw bulbs down across your yard as if they fell naturally. As you plant where they fall, create bunches of threes and fives. Things look good in odds.” This toss method is a great way to engage your littlest gardeners too. Planting outside of formalized garden areas may feel strange at first, but the natural falling from the toss method creates a more organic design across your lawn. No need to worry about your grass maintenance though. “Daffodils start to fade right when your grass is about ready for the first mow. Just mow them over when they are done,” says Pooley.

Dwarf Iris (Iris reticulata) offers a terrific contrast to the daffodil’s tall, bright color. This small, blue wisp of a bloom is a great naturalizer and will fill in year after year along woodsy areas or rock garden edges. Plant 8-10 bulbs per square foot.

Combining several species of Tulip creates a vibrant array of color.

Spring Color:

The more formal Tulip (Tulipa) comes in an endless variety of colors and petal shapes. These stately bloomers are perfect for arranging along a garden’s edge or fence for a formal look. Plant in clusters of 5-6 bulbs per square foot for a more full effect. These showcase flowers like to be in bunches instead of standing alone. Be dramatic with an abundance of one species or whimsical by combining many varieties together! Unlike other fall bulb growers, these flowers may need to be replanted each fall to have new growth the following spring. Because of this, as the stems and leaves yellow, you can either cut back the growth with the hope they may return or pull the bulb entirely at the end of their lifespan. As attractive as they are to us, they are also to deer. Keeping them closer to your home or planting in an abundance are helpful tactics to limit this pest.

Grape hyacinths (Muscari) are shorter, sweet bundles of blue that pair beautifully with Tulip’s tall, slender shape. Plant these easy growers on the floor of your garden beds, woody areas, and grasses as they fill in to create a beautiful carpet of blue year after year.

Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) are a taller variety of bloom reaching 1 1/2 feet tall with a pop of blue color perfect for woody areas and under trees. This deer and rodent-resistant plant thrives in our area and will naturalize well to bring the bright blue color of the sky right down into your garden.

Tulip’s tall stature pairs well with Grape Hyacinth’s robust blue blooms.

Late Spring/Early Summer Color:

For a standout explosion of color in your garden as summer perennials start to bloom, look for varieties of flowering onions or (alliums). Eye-catching and fun, these beauties are deer and rodent-proof making them a true success in our area’s late spring gardens. Place behind your earlier tulip growers or among low-growing summer perennials for dramatic pops spaced 6-12” apart based on species. With names like “Purple Sensation” and “Gladiator”, it's easy to see why these tall, purple beauties bring pizazz to our gardens. Other varieties will offer shades of deep purple, pink, blue, or even white.

Tall alliums pack a punch of color in late spring garden beds. Photo credit: Jeffery Eisen for Pexels

Selections for Wet or Woody Areas:

Local North Salem residents often contend with wet or woody areas on their property. For wet conditions, Pooley suggests Camassia; a late-spring bloomer that tolerates damp soil and blooms star-shaped flowers in beautiful blue, white or cream colors. With a taller presentation reaching 12-18” in height, they resemble the feel of wildflowers when clustered. Plant in partial to full sun with 6 bulbs per square foot around your gardens and yard. These deer and rodent-resistant plants will naturalize and fill in year after year.

The native Trout Lily (Erythronium), while sounding hardy in its name, is a small, delicate lily that thrives in woody areas. It is perfect for planting under evergreens, along wood borders, or under shady trees. Planting 5-6 bulbs per square foot will set these great naturalizers to bring color year after year. Blooming in early spring, they offer little wisps of purple or yellow in otherwise shady corners of our gardens.

After care:

At the end of their lifecycle, you will see stems and leaves begin to yellow. To keep your blooms returning year after year, simply cut the bloom (stem, leaves and all) down at the ground level, keeping the bulb in the soil. The bulbs will lay dormant until the cold sparks their return for the following spring.

It doesn't take much to extend the life of your garden’s color and plant the first signs of spring year after year. You can learn even more about gardening by visiting Pampooley.com and listening to her podcast “Parsley and Sage” ( www.parsleyandsagepodcast.com) with gardener Jeanne Farewell. Short and informative episodes share these experts’ love for garden design while educating you on topics like where to start when building a garden, how to select the right hydrangea or adding focal features and paths. Happy planting!

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