Spring Color Starts in the Fall
By Lois Hoffman
Photo by Unsplash/Irina Iriser
When spring finally breaks and all the spring flowers pop up, it is such a welcome sign after a long winter. However, all of that color takes a little planning the fall before.
September through mid-October is the optimum time to plant spring-flowering bulbs, other perennials that bloom in the spring and to consider storage for summer planted bulbs.
It’s probably best to get the old out of the way first. By digging bulbs that bloom in the summer before you plant spring blooming bulbs, you ensure that you don’t forget to dig them since out of sight is out of mind. It also makes room to plant other bulbs that need to go in during fall.
Summer bulbs such as gladiolas, tuberous begonias, cannas and dahlias are too tender to bear frost so they need to be dug and stored during winter. Once frost has killed the foliage, dig the bulbs, shake off loose dirt and let them dry a couple days, preferably in the sun. Then store in peat moss or just loose in boxes, not bags since bags attract moisture. Place in a dark storage area that is around 45*F.
If your plants were in pots, cut the foliage off and place the pots in a cool but non-freezing location. Leave until spring and do not water them.
Now, to consider planting the spring bulbs. Before you dive in, consider what look you are going after. Each variety has different bloom times, thus with careful planting, you can have continuous color throughout spring. These bulbs also look great planted “en masse” for large splashes of color in borders, groves and other large areas.
The general rule is to plant bulbs at a depth three times the width of the bulb itself. This is roughly four to six inches deep for small bulbs and eight inches deep for the larger ones. In sandy soil, go a little deeper and a little shallower for clay soil. Fertilize low in nitrogen with a blend of 9-6-6.
Some spring favorites are:
- Daffodils add cherry splashes of yellow and white in early spring. They are deer and vole resistant.
- Jonquils have tiny blooms and are great for naturalization. They are among the first to bloom.
- Crocus are favorites because they are usually the first flowers we see. Known to even push up through the snow, they come in a variety of colors.
- Snowdrops are aptly named since they appear early in the spring as little white bells.
- Hyacinths (including grape hyacinths) are small blue clusters of tiny bell-shaped blooms that are great for naturalizing.
- Tulips are later blooming but come in a large range of colors. These can be planted as late as you can dig in the ground. Squirrels love to eat these bulbs so you may have to put cages of chicken wire up to keep the varmints out.
- Irises are hardy, reliable and easy to grow. Actually, it’s hard to stop them from spreading. They attract hummingbirds and butterflies and make lovely cut flowers.
Most folks order large quantities of these bulbs to create the effect that they want. So, what happens if winter sneaks in and all the bulbs don’t get planted in the fall? No worries, these bulbs can be forced, which is the process of causing plants to bloom under unnatural conditions or at unusual times.
Bulbs in Containers
To accomplish this, bulbs need to be put in pots and forced indoors. Choose pots that have good drainage, with at least one hole in the bottom. They also need to be deep enough for the roots to grow, at least eight inches.
Be sure and select a good quality potting mix. Soilless is a good choice since it lets the bulbs drain freely and not get water-logged while still providing moisture and stability. Fill the container with a couple inches of potting mix, then place the bulbs in and cover with more potting mix, leaving room for watering. Bulbs in pots can be placed closer together than those planted outside.
After potting them, they need to be chilled. Daffodils, tulips and hyacinths especially need extended periods of cold between 35*F and 50*F to initiate shoots and flowers. Any dark space like a basement or root cellar will do as long as it doesn’t get below freezing. Freezing won’t damage the bulbs but may break the pots.
After they have cooled for 14 to 15 weeks, move them to a warm and bright location like a sunny windowsill. This will cause them to grow leaves and push up flower buds. Once the buds start to show color, move them out of direst sunlight to prolong flowering. After they bloom, they can be planted directly in the garden, however they may take a few years to fully recover.
Don’t forget that bulbs aren’t the only flowers that can be planted in fall. Many spring blossoms will bloom earlier, for longer periods and on taller stems if planted in the fall. Some seeds won’t germinate without going through a cold period. Some flowers that do better if planted in the fall are:
- Geum have dainty, one-inch orange flowers that are happiest in partial shade with well-drained soil. In most climates, they remain evergreen.
- Brown-eyed Susans will provide a sea of wildflowers which are in sharp contrast to their tame cousins, black-eyed Susans. Planted in full sun, they self-support themselves even though they grow to three feet tall.
- Anemones are much-loved flowers of early spring and are grown from small tubers. They have black eyes surrounded by paper thin white petals.
- Foxglove is an old favorite. Most are biennial which means that they flower then set seed the following year. The first-year blooming “Dalmation” series is the exception here. They have bell-shaped flowers on four-foot spikes. Although they tolerate sun, they thrive in partial shade in hotter climates.
- Coreopsis are great for fall planting.
- Ranuculus have layers of soft petals that resemble roses. Mid-spring blooming, they are grown form “corms” or small tubers and have longer stems if planted in fall.
- Annual phlox have pillowy flowers on 18-inch stems. Most varieties are perennials.
- Columbine is a another old-time favorite but is a short-lived perennial. They sport intricate patterns on the flower heads on two to four-foot stems. They have vibrant color and will give a second show if they are cut back.\
- Dianthus perform better if planted in the fall and are sweet and spice-scented long-time staples of bouquets.
Planting bulbs and flowers in the fall for spring blooms is a win-win situation. You can take advantage of sun-kissed autumn days by planting for a spring burst of color. What could be better than that!