Fall Bulbs

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

(10/2) Did you ever wish for a taste of spring in the middle of winter? How about the scent of flowers drifting through the house? Gardeners and non-gardeners can enjoy spring even in the middle of winter by forcing bulbs. October is the time to think about that often forgotten chore of preparing bulbs for winter forcing.

Now that the holiday season is fast approaching, paper whites and amaryllis are available in box stores, garden centers and even found in the local grocery store. You will find other bulbs like tulips, daffodils, muscari and snowdrops available in garden centers as well. Knowing how to handle these bulbs becomes very important if you wish to be successful in brightening the winter months.

Paper whites are the easiest of all bulbs to force. When purchasing bulbs, be sure they are firm and not soft or moldy. These bulbs should be planted in a container of soil or stones with the tips of the bulbs above the soil level. Place in a cool, sunny location, water as needed, and watch the bulbs grow! After the bulbs are finished blooming, discard. Unfortunately, these bulbs will not re-bloom and are not hardy in our zone 6.

Amaryllis are just as easy as the paper whites. These large flowers are incredibly showy and fun to grow. Again, be sure the bulb you are purchasing is firm. The larger the bulb, the more likely you will get a flower spike or two. Be careful buying this one at the big box stores, especially if they are in a box where you cannot see the bulb. Often times, even though they may be much cheaper, the bulb may be too small to produce a flower spike, and you will be disappointed.

Plant them in potting soil, with the top of the bulbs above the soil level. Place in a sunny window, water, and enjoy! If cared for correctly, this bulb can be for years to come. Cut off the old flower spike and allow the large leaves to keep growing and continue to water as you would any other houseplant. After danger of frost, you can plant it outside or continue to grow it in the container. At this point, you should fertilize it frequently, about every two weeks. Continue to grow until frost zaps the leaves. Dig it up and store the bulb in a cool, dry place until you see something begin to sprout. Or if it is still in the container, stop watering and store in a cool dry place. Once it begins to sprout, re-pot, and place it into a sunny window and water. The cycle will start all over again.

Other bulbs, like tulips, daffodils, muscari, hyacinths and snowdrops are not pre-cooled. They need to be tricked into thinking that they went through their dormant time. So we need to cool these ourselves. This can be done by planting them into pots with drainage holes, covering the entire bulb with potting soil, and then cooling the entire potted container. You can store the container in a refrigerator (do not store it with apples), or store it in a cool, dark basement, temperatures averaging low to mid 40's. This cooling process will take 13 - 16 weeks, depending on the bulb variety. Remember to keep the pot of bulbs watered during the cooling period, but don't overwater. You want to be sure there is good drainage in your pots so water isn't retained in the soil.

You will see white roots coming out the bottom of your pot and sprouts on top when the bulbs are ready to see the sun. Place them in a cool, sunny window and water. The cooler the window, the less leggy they will become. After they are finished blooming, plant them outside and treat as you would any hardy bulb.

What about planting tulips and daffodils for spring bloom? We plant in September and October when warm soils in the fall will encourage root growth of plants and typical rainfall in our area reduces the amount of watering that gardeners need to apply - and - the weather is so much cooler to work in the garden. Because of better root development in the fall, when spring arrives, the plants have a much better start compared to plants planted in the spring. Then when the hot dry weather of summer hit, the fall planted plant will be well established and therefore, can withstand the tough summer environment.

What can be planted in October? For starters: BULBS of course! When purchasing bulbs in garden centers and nurseries, be sure to look at the bulbs carefully. Here are a few things to look for:

If you see anything in the box that looks like sawdust, re-think whether you want to purchase those bulbs. This sawdust-like substance can often be seen in tulips and is caused by an insect in the bulb. This is a sure sign that the quality of those bulbs in not what it should be.

Feel the bulbs for firmness. Often times when purchasing daffodils, they will be soft or have a feeling of being empty, especially if it is late in the season. If the bulbs are not firm, they will rot in the ground.

Look for a bulb that has little new growth. When planting the bulbs, it's a good thing if the bulb produces its roots first in the fall, and then pushes stem growth when it's supposed to, in the spring.

Be sure when planting the bulbs that you are planting them at the correct depth. This is important because the bulbs could freeze if not planted deep enough. Most daffodils and tulips should be planted 6 inches in depth; and small bulbs, like crocus, should be 3 inches in depth.

What kind of bulbs should be planted?

When choosing, don't overlook some of the small bulbs. Often times the small bulbs will naturalize nicely and will give you an unexpected show.

If you're looking for bulbs to naturalize, consider daffodils and narcissus, as well as crocus, scillia, and snowdrops.

Remember to try to get the plantings in by the end of October. This allows some time for the bulbs to get their roots established before the winter freeze.

Chrysanthemums are a popular fall-blooming flower. Keep these tips in mind when purchasing "mums" for your garden:

Remember when choosing mums, pick the plants that are in bud, not fully open. You will be able to enjoy the flowers much longer if they bloom for you in your garden instead of at the nursery.

Keep in mind that if you want the chrysanthemum to be perennial, meaning that it will come back next year, you really need to get it in the ground before the end of October. The longer you wait to plant it, the less likely it will come back next year.

Enjoy your plant in a container until late October, and then get it in the ground. Remember to keep it watered in the container, because if it dies in the pot, planting it in the ground will not bring it back to life.

Flowering cabbage is an annual plant, so it will last just one season. However, the flowering cabbage will flourish in the cool temperatures and often last through December. They make great fall and winter decorations. Plant them in containers or in the ground and enjoy the purple, white and pink colors they offer. Mix them with pansies, other cool season annuals, or even evergreen stems for pretty mixed containers.

Fall is also a great time to plant trees and shrubs. Try to get them in the ground by mid-November. This gives the plants time to get some of their roots established before the hard winter freeze.

Get outside, start digging again and enjoy gardening! Try something new this year and start a gardening tradition! Bring spring inside by forcing bulbs and keep on gardening!

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