You won’t have spring flowering bulbs unless you plant them in the fall. Given the approach of winter, now is the time to plant them. It is easy and their flowers will make coming out of the winter so much more pleasant. While the rest of the yard works its way to life, you get weeks of color.
First, of course, you will need bulbs to plant. I am speaking of tulips and daffodils, primarily. They are hardy and there are plenty available from nurseries and big-box stores. Many stores have them on sale, worried that they won’t sell. Go and buy as many as you possibly can. It takes less than an hour to plant 100 tulips, and the rewards next spring — and early summer — will make that meager effort well worth it.
In addition to tulips and daffodils (narcissus), look for some of the so-called “lesser bulbs,” which are much smaller and have smaller flowers. Some of these found locally are Scilla siberica, Scilla mischtschenkoana, Alliums, Muscari armeniacum, Leucojum aestivum and crocuses. These are the easiest to plant and their flowers appear before the bigger tulips and daffodils. Hyacinths are not always hardy, but give them a try or use them for indoor forcing. You may find other offerings. If you are unsure of hardiness, read the label and use the internet to decide if they grow outdoors or need to be forced indoors.
In any case, you are looking for bulbs that are firm and do not show signs of mold. Given a choice, buy the bulbs that are the largest. And you should try to get bulbs which normally have tunics attached. This is that thin, papery sheath that is supposed to be around tulips and daffodils and many other bulbs.
The big question I always get is how deep to plant spring-flowering bulbs. As a general rule, four times the plant’s diameter will do. You can use a dibble, bulb planter or, as I have discovered, a clamming shovel to make your job easier. Nothing should be added to the hole. What the bulb needs to grow is basically in the bulb.
An important step when planting bulbs in Alaska and other places with long winters is to apply a good layer of mulch, say three inches or so. This will keep the soil frozen during those thaws we seem to get every winter. It will also keep the ground thawed a bit, so the bulbs can start to develop roots before the really frozen ground sets. Normally snow serves this function, but I have learned the hard way that it is not a reliable cover, so you might want to have a bucket of leaves and grass clippings at hand as you plant.
It is also important here to ensure the bulbs are planted in an area that gets at least half a day or so of sun. Under evergreen trees does not seem to be a good spot, judging from experience. It is very hard to impossible to get bulbs to naturalize in a lawn here. Actually, most bulbs planted here should be considered annuals, though the lesser bulbs do seem to be more resilient and reappear for years.
I always get questions about forcing indoors and growing in containers outdoors. Indoors, pot up and store in a cold location like a garage or unheated crawlspace. Points of tulips should all point outwards. You can mix types of bulbs in a container because they need to be planted at different depths. Bring these pots into light starting in late February. And don’t delay planting them right now just because it is an indoor job which can be accomplished any old time. So many well-intentioned gardeners forget their bulbs and ask what to do in the spring when all will be lost.
If a planter is large enough and its soil stays frozen all winter, you might be able to use them. You may need to put straw or even bubble wrap around the containers. Some make a hole and bury the container in-ground. It is a gamble only you can decide to take.
Spring flowering bulbs: To steal a phrase, just do it.
Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar
Alaska Botanical Garden: Bootanical Garden is open through Oct. 24. Free for members and children 6 and younger. $6 for nonmembers 7 and older. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. (4601 Campbell Airstrip Road; alaskabg.org)
Is it spruce bark beetle?: Evergreens lose 10% to 15% of their needles in the fall. To see if it’s beetle-caused, look for sap on the trunk and sawdust around the base.
Harvest: Come on! If you don’t want it, find someone that needs it. Plant a row means harvesting it.
NYT: Yes, there was a humbling New York Times article on these columns over the years.