Not long ago I was talking to a gardening friend. The subject was spring bulbs, and her lament was that she just didn’t have the time to get them in the ground. “I’ve given up buying bulbs,” she said, “because every year they end up rotting in my garage.” I can sympathize with her, because of every fall, at least in my little corner of the world, sinister forces conspire to take away the weekends that I intended to spend planting all the bulbs that I ordered back in August.
The problem is, if you don’t plant bulbs, you won’t have all those lovely daffodils, tulips, crocus and hyacinths next spring. What you will have is depression over the lack of beauty after the long gray winter, coupled with envy of your neighbors who did manage to get something in. There are enough sources of depression in the world, without trying to eliminate those that are easily treatable.
So take heart. It really isn’t too late. If the ground has not frozen where you are, you can still plant those bulbs. Now, however, is not the time to use that wimpy little dibble that you ordered from one of the high-end garden catalogs. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Take a sturdy spade and dig trenches so that you can install handfuls at a time. Using this method you can actually get quite a few bulbs in the ground in a relatively short period of time. It also makes it possible to create fair sized clumps of individual cultivars, and those will look quite dramatic in the spring.
If the ground has frozen, and you don’t feel up to digging bulb holes with dynamite, there is another viable alternative. Go to the garden center or out into that neglected corner of the garage and get as many wide, shallow pots as you can. If you have taken the garden center route, buy a large sack of potting mix as well. Pot up your bulbs just as if you were putting them in the ground outside. Water your newly filled pots, then place them in an unheated garage, on a corner of the back porch, or in some similar, out-of-the- way spot. Water them every once in awhile.
After a few months, you can do one of two things. If you bring the pots into the house, they will be tricked into thinking spring has arrived, and within a week or two will begin sprouting. Eventually, you will have blossoms, probably ahead of the bulbs that are waiting in the ground outdoors. Without the benefit of books or sage advice or anything else, you will have “forced” pots of spring bulbs. You can bring the pots in weekly to stagger the period of indoor bloom.
If you decide to keep the pots in the garage, wait until the weather begins warming up (when the nights are above freezing) and take them out into the garden. They will sprout and blossom just as if they had been planted in the ground. Rest assured in the knowledge that it’s quite fashionable to mix containerized specimens with in-ground plantings. Things will be so beautiful in March and April that your friends will never know that you procrastinated in October.
Once your bulbs have bloomed, keep watering them, and don’t cut off the foliage until it begins to brown. As you are planting your annuals, dig holes that are slightly deeper than normal. Unpot your clumps of rooted bulbs, and put those clumps in the planting holes. This way the annuals will immediately hide the less-than-attractive dying leaves of the daffodils and tulips. You will also be set for next year, as some of the tulips (depending on the variety) and most of the daffodils will reappear the following spring.
The great garden writer Henry Mitchell is reported to have collapsed and died one November day while helping a friend plant spring bulbs. It was a poetic and natural way for a great man to go, but if you are feeling a bit peaked these days, there is no reason to get out in the cold with a trowel. Stand by the sink with a plethora of pots and a big bag of potting soil. You’ll feel just as satisfied, and your feet will stay warm.
by E. Ginsburg