Thursday, January 3, 2013

Becky Heath quells my bulb-planting qualms

"Springtime turned slooow-ly into aut-ummmmn" according to Bob Dylan.  For me, here in the Hudson Valley, it was summer that turned unknowingly into winter.

And that's just great! Why? Because I didn't order my bulbs till about three weeks ago (not really that great). Brent and Becky's Bulbs had a killer 50% off sale, and while I was too late to get any Cyclamen coum, or Arum italicum, I did, however, get a couple thousand dollars worth of ah-mazing bulbs without spending a couple thousand dollars (really great). And, I got them all in before the first major snowfall.

Oh, not that I had that strategy all worked out or anything. I thought there was time--I really did! In my  defense, I believe I was duped by the short-sleeves I was wearing throughout most of the bulb planting season. I know a few others who were duped as well . . . the many daffodils who got the wrong memo and started peeking their leaf points up out of the mulch. I am not the only one who responds to the weather.

What I saw in the garden was the result of silent communication from a darkened world: the bulbs--planted last year--were responding to unseasonably warm soil temperatures. Cells sent chemical messages to other cells to initiate the process that ends in a flower's seed head. I felt sorry, I did, that there was no way to wind back that growth, knowing that those energetic leaf tips would be purposeless once winter really set in.

The hundreds (and hundreds) of ScillaAllium, species tulips, Narcissus, Hyacinthoides, Crocus I planted a few weeks ago are colloquially called bulbs. More specifically, and botanically, they are geophytes. These types of plants have enlarged underground storage units of modified stem and leaf tissue that could take the shape of a rhizome (banana), a tuber (potato), a corm (crocus), a bulb (tulip), and all have the same purpose: to store nutrients and energy to push vegetative growth once soil temperature indicates it is hospitable to do so. For this reason, bigger is always better. And, for this reason too, global warming is not.

Instead of delving into the murky why's of a warming climate, I am more interested in questioning the common culture of fall bulb planting. When, exactly, is the best time to do so? Did I send the wrong message to all the bulbs that I hastily plunged into the earth a week before temperatures dropped? Did I plant them too late?

The minute we plant our bulbs in the fall, the bulb is immediately triggered to begin root growth to seek, uptake and store nutrients, and water. Bulbs have the energy to perform this first function post-planting thanks to the storage of carbohydrates from the previous seasons' photosynthesis of sunlight into sugar. Even if the top inches of soil are frozen, roots are alive and will continue to function--this is true for all plants, and is the same reason planting trees in the fall gives them a precious head start come spring.

So did I plant too late? The big chill is settling in, and even though we had some good rains after the bulbs were planted, was that enough time for them to grow roots, or does it really matter?

Because I wasn't sure, I did what any of you can do: reach out to someone who knows more. I called on Becky Heath, the Becky of Brent and Becky's Bulbs. While she is not on a road trip visiting family, or keeping up with her nine grandchildren, she always has time to talk bulbs, and for this I thank her!


Resting bulbs are dug and transported, with enough time to package and ship to you, or your local retailer for the "planting season". Is it inspired marketing, or proper horticulture to have bulbs offered for sale in September, like you see at mass-market outlets like Home Depot or Wal-Mart? Well, it is true that the earlier you get your hands on freshly available bulbs the better--bulbs will start to deteriorate if not stored in a cool, well-ventilated area. The little green sprout you might see (even from your bulb of garlic at home) indicates it is too warm, the stores of carbs are depleting, and that little bulb is doing everything it knows to survive, even at its own demise.
Well, certainly not too early! If bulbs go in when the soil is too warm, combined with autumn rain, you are headed for rot. Not a happy circumstance. However, there is a sweet spot, and a way to know just when that is. Becky explains the ideal soil temperature to plant bulbs is about 60℉. Don't have a fancy soil temperature gauge? Neither do I. When the nighttime mercury hovers at 50℉, and/or when you've noticed the first killing frost, you're good to go. The first frost helps to cool the soil, and it is these optimal conditions that trigger geophytes to grow roots.

Maybe. And that is the plain, painful truth of it.

Becky revealed that the very reason why we plant bulbs when we do is to allow those bulbs to develop a vigorous root system. From the time you raise your hand from that last pat of covering soil, your bulbs need a minimum of three weeks to develop great legs, and by legs I mean roots (roots do all the legwork). Once those roots have developed, they need to remain at a consistent temperature. How do I ensure that when it was 40℉ yesterday and 20℉ today? The soil remains at a constant temperature below the frost line, one thing in my favor. A consistent temperature is also ensured by planting your bulbs at their recommended depths so that they do not freeze, and can sustain their life. If that recommendation is six inches, make sure it's six inches! Clearly, now, this is not an arbitrary admonition.

Did I plant too late? I might be just on the cusp. I calculate maybe two weeks of solid growth, with some good, deep rain before the tundra we have now. I'll have to report an update in spring. Becky counseled that my mistake will be revealed if my bulbs emerge much later than expected, and when they do, they will be much shorter than normal.

I will say, miracles happen, and plants are surprisingly resilient. The image below is from a client's garden, fully accessible to the herds of deer, and squirrels in her suburban neighborhood. Understanding culture, and how to manipulate it, will yield great results, great lessons, or both!

Many thanks to Becky Heath for her enthusiasm for her work, her intimate knowledge of the subject, and her cheerfulness in her communication. I am grateful to have you, and Brent and Becky's Bulbs, as a valued resource.

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