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Sage Garden Blog

Fall flower bulb and garlic planting 101

Now that we are into the first week of October, and apparently Mother Nature has decided to be unequivocal about summer being over, it is very much bulb planting season. And after much anticipation and some drama, all of our bulbs and seed garlic are now at Sage! If you pre-ordered bulbs or garlic, these have been set aside for pick-up (or shipped if that was selected) and we have been contacting everyone by phone or email to let them know orders are ready. 

As people have been coming in for their bulbs, we've been hearing some common questions; so, we thought it a good idea to put together a little "bulb planting 101 tutorial":

When should bulbs be planted? 

Hardy flower bulbs and hardneck seed garlic can be planted once weather cools off to the point of some overnight frosts. We usually say the earliest would be the first week of October, and this year we are clearly in the zone right now. Planting can be done as late as early November, so long as the bulbs get into the ground to the appropriate depth (some years we've used a hand drill to make holes when the top layer of soil has already started to freeze - and everything was turned just fine).

Fall bulb display at Sage

Where should hardy bulbs be planted?

Most flower bulbs and all garlic require good drainage - so avoid any location where water sits or pools. Try to think of how the garden is in spring, after the snow melts, as standing snow melt is not good for bulbs. There is no problem planting into raised beds - in fact for garlic we have found this to be better than a normal clay garden - so long as the bed is sitting on the ground (no space under the bottom) and no more than 18" tall. 

Most bulbs appreciate a sunny location, although daffodils, tulips, scilla and crocus can grow in partial shadeGarlic definitely requires full sun. Bulbs are not well suited to pots outdoors, and hardy fall bulbs are difficult to force indoors unless cool temperatures (0 - 10˙C) can be provided for an extended period. 

How deep should bulbs be planted? 

The rule of thumb is to plant three times the depth of the bulb itself. So larger bulbs like daffodils and tulips are planted at about 8", smaller bulbs closer to the surface. Flower bulbs can be layered to extend bloom time (each inch deeper = about 1 week delay in blooming). We recommend planting garlic at 4" deep. 
Seed garlic at Sage Garden

How do I plant my bulbs?

The basic process of planting bulbs is quite easy: create a hole to the appropriate depth, add bonemeal (1 tablespoon per bulb / clove of garlic), put the bulb in pointy side up (actually quite important!) and cover. No need to water, but helpful to label or document where you have planted your bulbs. Garlic is typically spaced 6" between cloves; with flower bulbs you get more artistic license but they always look best when planted in groups. 

Bone meal and bulbs

Should I mulch my bulbs?

The new best practice for northern garlic is to mulch without question. Our fall weather is highly variable, with both very warm and cold conditions possible; mulching keeps the garlic bulbs at a more stable temperature and significantly reduces the chance of shoots emerging above ground in fall (the kiss of death for bulbs in our area) or early extreme cold snaps from freezing out bulbs in exposed ground. 

The best mulch is something light and weed free such as our certified organic GardenStraw. Shredded loose leaves are also excellent. Regular straw bales and flax are not ideal, as these are heavy. With mulches the more the merrier when it comes to buffering against fluctuations in weather through fall/winter/spring - 6" to 12" would be common. Mulch should be left on in spring; remember that it will break down significantly over winter and that 12" of loose GardenStraw will become a nice little layer of organic material come spring. 

Hardy flower bulbs are not commonly mulched, simply because they are often planted into beds where it might feel awkward to cover things up with GardenStraw or loose leaves. That said, hardy flowers are sensitive to our variable weather as much as garlic so if you want to add a measure of protection mulching is a good idea (the way it seems to go in our area is that hardy plant material is just fine 9 times out of 10, then we get a curve-ball fall/winter/spring weather event and wish we had mulched...). 

How to protect against animals digging up my bulbs?

Unfortunately squirrels can be tempted by nutrient-rich flower bulbs and sometimes even garlic. Mulching does help reduce the chances of animals getting into the bulbs, while blood meal is the old standard when it comes to discouraging them. The best type of blood meal is called PlantSkydd, an OMRI listed organic option that was developed by the Swedish government to discourage elk from eating saplings. PlantSkydd has the advantage of not washing away when it rains, so it only has to be applied one time. 

The best recommendation for discouraging animals is to use a few methods, so they do not habituate. Some popular DIY options to complement PlantSkydd include very hot pepper flakes and powdered garlic. 

If animals are persistent barriers can be placed over the bulb planting area; at the less extreme end is burlap laid out and secured over the ground but the use of chicken wire is not unheard of! 

Want more info? 

We have a variety of resources available for you:

- Our garlic listings on-line include details on growing through the summer and harvesting (just click the "planting" "growing" & "harvesting" tabs with in the descriptions for any of the garlic listings)

- Check out Dave's detailed article on hardneck garlic

- Episode 51 of Dave's podcast, The Grow Guide, is a all about growing garlic. Listen for FREE anywhere you access podcasts (just search The Grow Guide). iTunes link here

- Drop by in person, we would be happy to answer any of your questions. 

Hardy bulb planting is an exceptional opportunity to create colour (and flavour) in your spring garden. And the neat thing is that this is one gardening project than can only happen in the fall. Hopefully our Q & A has answered your questions and you can go ahead and have a lot of fun planting! 

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