In the garden: the time of autumn planting | Weekend magazine


Spring is all about planting, but many gardeners overlook fall planting. Now is the time to plant garlic and spring flowers planted in bulbs. For me, fall planting is a joy: the thought of bulbs nestled in the ground just waiting for spring fills me with hope. And if you pick a good spot and plant them well, you are sure to be successful.

Let’s start with garlic. I like to say that garlic is essentially a no-work crop: plant it, mulch it to keep weeds from falling, then harvest it. The hardest part right now will be finding “garlic seeds” – beautiful, fatty garlic bulbs that you can divide into cloves and plant. Many vendors are sold out, but try your local garden center or feed and grain store. Don’t buy conventional garlic from the grocery store to plant it. It’s usually treated with a chemical to keep it from sprouting, and isn’t the right type for New England. Hard-necked garlic is what you want.

When to plant garlic? Late October is when I plant, but it’s good to plant sooner or later. It’s best to plant after the soil cools, but you’ll want the plants to take root before the soil freezes.

Choose a bed in your vegetable or flower garden that is in full sun and has beautiful, rich soil that holds water but does not stay soggy in rainy weather. If you have heavy clay, work in lots of good compost, either your own or whatever you buy in a bag.

I plant garlic cloves in rows spaced about 8 inches apart. Each clove, I plant 3 inches deep and 3-4 inches apart. I run my CobraHead weeder over the bed to create a furrow and loosen the soil. I sprinkle some Pro-Gro or other bagged organic fertilizer in the furrow and run my hand tool through it again. Then I push in the cloves, the pointy end, cover it with soil and pat it lightly.

Finally, I take some mulch hay or straw and cover the bed with about 12 inches of loose straw. I know it sounds like a lot, but by the end of winter there will be only 4-6 inches of coverage left. This should keep most weeds from growing all summer – or until you harvest in late July. I always keep my best garlic bulbs for planting.

This is also the time to plant daffodils, tulips and all the little bulbs that bloom early. If you have a fenced yard, this will prevent the deer from eating tulip flowers when it is budding – a real treat for them. If you have a problem with deer, avoid tulips or plant them in pots for straining.

Tulips and daffodils are generally labeled as early season, mid season, or late season. Plant plenty of each. The former are usually shorter and I plant a few, but I like the larger ones better. ‘Maureen’ is my favorite tulip: she is 22-24 inches tall, and ivory to white, fabulous in a vase. ‘Chin’ is another beautiful large, pink petals on the outside with orange and white on the inside.

Although I have daffodils that still bloom after over 50 years, tulips are less perennial. My rule of thumb is that if I plant 50 everything will flower in the first year, half in the second year, and half again in the third year. So I often plant them as annuals and pluck them or trim the foliage when I plant annual flowers on them in June.

Bulb planting tools are sold that you can dip into the ground and extract a 3-inch-wide soil core. I do not like them. The soil sticks to the tool, and I find it much longer to plant the bulbs one at a time. I prefer to dig a big hole in the ground and plant 25 or 50 at a time. Augers for your cordless drill are sold for planting bulbs, but most drills are not strong enough to do the job.

Here is what I do: I select a beautiful sunny spot that drains well and is not soggy in winter. Next, I dig an oval hole about 3 feet long and 2 feet from front to back, which will serve well for 25 bulbs. For daffodils and tulips, I want a hole that is at least 6 inches deep. I put the soil in a wheelbarrow or on a blue tarp so as not to soil my lawn or my garden bed.

Then I add some good compost and either Bulb Booster or a slow release organic fertilizer, and bury it in the ground with my CobraHead weeder, a one-tooth hand tool. Then, I arrange the bulbs in the loosened earth at the bottom of the hole, the fat bottom down, and the pointed head up. I mix a little compost with the soil I removed and carefully fill the hole.

If space is limited, you can plant two layers of bulbs in the same hole. Plant the large bulbs at the bottom of your hole and add soil up to 2-3 inches below ground level. Then plant small bulbs like crocus, snowdrops, snow glory (Chionodaxa spp.) Or scilla (Scilla siberica). Small, early bulbs will delight you, then daffodils or tulips will overwhelm you, especially if you forget you’ve planted the double bed.

I’ve been planting bulbs around my 2+ acres for decades, as spring blossoms are the perfect antidote to a long winter in New Hampshire. It’s always a challenge to find a place to squeeze the bulbs, but there is always a place. This fall, I’m planting them between the hostas I planted last year. The hosta foliage will hide the dying leaves of the daffodils after they bloom.

Henry Homeyr lives, dreams of spring and gardens in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire. He is a longtime UNH master gardener and the author of four gardening books. Contact him at [email protected]


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