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IN SEASON: November bulbs bring April flowers

Years ago, when I lived in Alaska, I was driving to work one morning at the end of a frigid winter. The thaw had given way to greenery and by mid-May the sun had fully returned after a winter of darkness. As I passed a stand of pine trees, I suddenly noticed to my left a field brimming in green and purple.

I could not resist pulling over to see what was blooming. It was my first spring in Alaska, and I was both surprised and delighted to discover several acres of irises blooming in the wild. At that moment I felt that the dreary, dark, cold winter was finally behind me. From then on, irises have been my favorite flower and I grow them in my garden every year.

Dutch irises are just one of the many bulbs that we can plant in fall for springtime blooms. Lilies, daffodils, freesia and many others thrive here when planted in fall. Browsing through the bulb section of a gardening store or catalogue can be very exciting and you may be very tempted to fork over a lot of money. Before selecting bulbs for fall planting though, there are a few things to consider.

Selecting the right bulbs

Some bulbs, for example tulips and crocus, need chilling hours in order to bloom the next spring. Our climate is not cold enough for bulbs that need to be chilled. You can replicate the process by chilling bulbs in your refrigerator for 10 to 15 weeks before you plan to plant them outdoors.

You want to place the bulbs at the back of the refrigerator, and ideally, not around fruits and vegetables as the gasses they give off can damage the flower inside the bulbs. I like to chill bulbs in paper lunch bags, which are breathable and easy to label. Bulbs that need prechilling are not ideal bulbs for planting directly into the garden in fall.

For planting directly into the fall garden, I have a few favorites that I recommend. Ranunculus, with its sharp looking rosette blooms, is available in many colors. It is a fan of the cold and may even bloom in winter. Once the heat sets in Ranunculus will not produce many blossoms, but it is one of the first you will see in the spring.

I love to plant freesia, with its heavenly fragrance in the wine barrel herb garden near my front door. It is a pleasure to pass by on my way in from work. Its delicate blossoms are available in a wide variety of pastel colors that are often associated with spring.

Daffodils, with their familiar shade of buttercup yellow, thrive in our less-than-ideal soils. Planting a handful this year will yield you daffodils for many years to come. You will have plenty to share with neighbors, friends, and family when you are dividing them in the fall.

Preparing the flowerbed

When choosing a site for your flowerbed in fall, envision how much sun the bed will receive in the spring. Most flowering spring bulbs require 6 to 8 hours of full sun. If your flowerbed is along a wall or fence, plan to plant the taller bulbs near the back and the shorter bulbs near the front. The label on the package will tell you how big the bulb is expected to grow.

The site will also need to drain well as sitting in water for too long can cause bulbs to rot. This can be a problem with our heavy clay soil, the soil will need to be amended. You may choose to rototill the area and mix in amendments such as compost or worm casings. I prefer to disturb the soil as little as possible and I only amend the hole that I will be planting the bulb into.

Planting and caring for bulbs

Dig a hole about 3 times the depth of the bulb and about 2 times as wide. Mix the native soil with a good compost, the soil should feel light and fluffy, and backfill the hole. Push aside enough soil to make room for the bulb and then place the bulb into the planting hole with the pointy end facing up. Bulbs do not usually need to be planted deeply but follow the instructions on the package label.

Cover the bulb with the soil that you pushed aside. If a bit of the bulb end pokes up from the soil that is OK. Water in the soil well and then cover the planting hole with a light-colored mulch such as leaves or straw. In northern climates fall bulbs are not watered over the winter but in our warm dry environment, I find it best to water every other week, giving the flowerbed a good soaking unless we receive a few nice rainstorms.

When the green growth begins to emerge in fall, pull back the mulch from around the stem of each plant, forming a ring. Once the flowers have grown to a height of 4 to 6 inches apply a compost side dressing around but not touching the stems. If you are using driplines, apply the compost side dressing beneath the emitters. This will allow for continued slow feeding. Apply another light feeding when you notice flower buds beginning to form.

Once the blooms have come and gone each type of flower has their own requirements for care if you would like to see maximum blooms year after year. Some, like the Dutch iris need to be dug up and divided every 3 to 5 years. Bulbs that need to be prechilled should be dug up and placed in the refrigerator to over winter once more. Many gardeners prefer to just buy new bulbs every year but that can be expensive.

Growing flowers from bulbs can be an expensive endeavor to begin, but it is one that will pay off over the years when the blooms return season after season. Your pocketbook, and your eyes will thank you.

Terri Meehan is the Founder of Southern Nevada Gardening Association a regional group. She is a garden mentor and local farmer in Pahrump. Send questions or comments to her at sonvgarden@gmail.com

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