By Carol Stocker
If you feel like working outside in the glorious fall weather, this just happens to be the best time to plant most trees, shrubs and perennials that are winter hardy, and almost all spring blooming bulbs, as well. They need to start growing roots before winter to put on a good show next spring. Early November is not too late to plant.
Fall, not spring, is the best season for planting because plants do not have to deal with debilitating heat and drought. In fact natural rainfall is so plentiful that you often don't need to water. And it doesn't hurt that it's the most pleasant time of the year for outdoor projects and that nursery stock is often on sale now. We are programmed to respond to the fall chill with increased productivity, just like those plant roots.
If you are a beginning gardener, start by planting some ornamental bulbs. These will become the easiest and earliest flowers in your 2013 garden. That's because bulbs are like little suitcases that have their flowers already packed inside (in embryonic form), so they are guaranteed to produce it least one flower next spring.
Whether or not bulbs flower in successive years depends upon the type of bulb you choose and and where you plant it. An ideal location is next to a south-facing house foundation at the top of a slope. The house protects the plants from winds, the foundation radiates heat for an early spring start and the slope promotes good drainage longevity. Or plant where you will be able to see the flowers from indoor windows, as they will bloom when it is still cold out.
Daffodils, hyacinths, crocus and alliums or (ornamental onions) are all easy, beautiful bulbs that can return for many springs. Bulbs like sun, but if your garden is shady, try leucojum, erythronium, camassia, galanthus and wood hyacinths instead. Many Oriental lilies are also shade tolerant, but I would think twice about planting them if the new red lily leaf beetle, which devours them, has arrived in your area.
If they weren't so lovely, I would warn you away from tulips, too. They often only bloom their first spring, spouting "blind" leaves in subsequent springs. I think of them as expensive annuals and plant them only three or four inches deep, and then pull up and discard the entire plant after they finish blooming. I also spray them with animal repellent when they are growing in the spring because deer love them and will otherwise nip off their buds so you'll be left with rows of headless tulips. Most people find that tulips are not worth such extra trouble and expense, but I love them as much as the deer, so I put up with it.
Plant bulbs with the pointy ends up. You can dig an individual hole for each bulbs. But unless you are dotting them around an already packed perennial bed, it is much easier and looks better if you plant bulbs in a cluster in of five or more in one big hole per grouping. The planting hole should be three times as deep as the width of the bulbs. You can space the bulbs twice their width apart. So smaller bulbs can be planted more shallowly and closely together than larger bulbs.
I love buying plants and bulbs but I hate digging holes, so here are some of my personal tricks for fitting more plants into fewer holes:
Layer several kinds of bulbs of different sizes one hole. For instance, plant giant ornamental onion bulbs that are four inches wide in a hole I've dug a foot deep. Then I cover them up by filling the hole half way to the top, which in this case means back filling with six inches of soil. Next, arrange a layer of two inch wide daffodil bulbs on this new level spaced four inches apart. Then cover those with three inches of soil and position a layer of inch-wide crocuses above them two inches apart before totally filling in the hole with soil. I use a ruler to measure, but don't be afraid to eyeball it, since bulbs are forgiving. When you finish planting this or anything else, water immediately to help the soil settle and to initiate root growth.
I also sometimes combine perennials and bulbs in the same planting hole. The tricky thing about planting perennials or trees or shrubs is to dig to the right depth, which is the depth plant was growing in the nursery container you bought it in. For instance, if you buy a perennial that is in a gallon pot that is nine inches deep, with the soil surface one inch below the rim of the pot, you need to dig a planting hole eight inches deep. This sounds simple, but it is important. If you make the hole too deep and bury the plant's crown, the spot where the roots attach to the stem, with too much soil, you can kill the plant. Strange as it sounds, roots that planted and buried too deep can suffocate. This is true of trees and shrubs, as well as perennials. The simplest technique to measure the depth of the hole you are digging is to set the pot in the hole. Ten you can see whether you need to back fill or dig deeper before you even take your perennial out of the pot.
When you get the hole to the right depth, begin widening it. Most plants have roots that grow outward rather than downward, so ideally you should widen the hole until it is three times as wide as it is deep. I position the bulbs in a ring around the bottom of the hole, before I put the perennial plant in the center. This way the bulbs can sprout up around the perennial. If the plant is too low in the hole you can pull it up or out and fill in the hole part way without worrying about covering up or moving the bulbs, which are less fussy about planting depth. Mix the soil you dug out of the hole with organic amendments such aged cow manure, the gardener's favorite "black gold," to enrich the soil and improve it's "tilth," or texture. Don't worry about adding fertilizer, which sometimes does more harm than good by disrupting soil organisms. There's an old gardener's saying: "Feed the soil, not the plant." If you focus on improving the soil content and texture instead of just applying fertilizer to the plant, beneficial organisms such as earthworms can flourish and your plants will grow better in the long run.
Planting now will give you a down payment on spring that will make the long winter ahead feel that much shorter.