Brace yourselves gardeners - winter is coming! Although the frost may have arrived, the good news is that the garden season is not over yet! For growing zones 6/7, NOW is prime time to plant your spring blooming bulbs. For growing zones 1 thru 5 you may have missed your planting window for this year (see planting times at the end of this post).
Where do YOU plant your bulbs? Do you know basic winter planting rules for your zone? There are a variety of locations you could plant them in your landscape during the cooler months but we will focus on growing them in containers. After doing some of my own experiments last winter, I want to share with you my secrets to keeping beautiful, healthy bulbs through the winter and give you a how-to guide to try it yourself!
First things first, Know your Winter Weather:
Before you do any planting, you need to know the basic requirements for planting spring bulbs. In order for a bulb to ‘stay alive’ they MUST maintain a 10 to 12 week period in an environment between 33-48 F. This is a necessity. If you are in a warmer climate, your bulbs may flip flop between cold and warm repetitively. As a result, they may not bloom in the spring (so sad!). This is where knowing your zone is important. Don’t know what your zone is? Check out the Farmer’s Almanac. Here in my zone, 6b/7a, I am able to plant my bulbs in the fall because I know the temperature will be within the proper range through the winter. If you are in a warmer area like zone 8, the temps will likely rise too often above the required range. If that is the case, you do have options! Many bulbs can be cold treated for 10 to 12 weeks by a bulb supplier or placed in your refrigerator for that time period...though that may be risky. Do some research on the different processes.
Once you know you are safe to plant your bulbs this fall, there are a few options you have:
1) Plant them straight in your garden bed.
2) Plant them near the base of a tree trunk.
3) Plant them in the grass.
4) Plant them using a container (my personal choice!). Though all are possible I have seen the most benefits with planting bulbs in containers!
(WARNING: If you are in zone 6b/7 you can benefit from this method. If you are in less than 6a, you will need to plant straight in the ground. If you are zone 8 or higher, you will have to buy pre-cooled bulbs or create the 3 month cold environment in your fridge before planting. Do some research to learn how. Read here to learn more: https://www.miraclegro.com/en-us/library/rose-flower-gardening/
Benefits of Using Containers
Using containers for fall bulb planting is my method of choice for several reasons! With this strategy you can get your spring blooms sooner AND stagger your blooms through the spring months. Who doesn’t want that?! Container plants typically warm up sooner than those in the ground, which means you will get flowers earlier than if you were to plant them straight into the soil. It’s also less labor-intensive, because you won’t need to dig all those holes for planting. A win, win, win!
In order to reap these benefits, you’ll need to make sure you choose the right type of container. Metal and plastic are ideal materials because they will last through the winter frost. Avoid using terracotta pots as they can easily crack! Choose a container that also has holes on the bottom to allow for drainage. Water should be able to flow through the container and not gather and rot your bulbs.
In terms of sizing you’ll need to choose a large enough pot to accommodate your bulbs. I currently use an 18”-24” circle container with an 18” depth. It’s important to have a relatively deep container in relation to your bulb size - let me tell you why.
How to Prep Your Containers
You’ll need a deep enough container in order to fit all of the needed components. I recommend following these steps to create the layers in your container to optimize insulation and protection for your bulbs.
1) Start with a 1” layer of rocks for the base layer to help with drainage.
2) Follow by 2” of potting soil, then layer your bulbs based on the chart below for depth. After each layer you will need to cover them with another few inches of soil but the exact amount depends on which bulb you’re planting. Whatever size the bulb is, you will need to plant it 2-3x that depth. For example, my tulip and daffodil bulbs need to be planted 6-7” deep, but my crocuses, being smaller bulbs, only need to be planted 4-5” deep.
3) To top it off, you’ll finish with a layer of mulch
4) Then an optional (but recommended) layer of shredded leaves.
5) Once you’ve set up your container give the bulbs an initial watering until water runs out the bottom.
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Where to store your Containers
Once you’ve planted your bulbs, it’s time to tuck them in for winter. Remember, you’ll need to find a location that will allow for 10 to 12 weeks of cold, so keep that in mind when choosing your spot. Ideally your area should be cold enough to maintain the right temperatures. If you have a garden bed like I do, you’ll need to start by digging a 4” deep circle the size of the base of your container as this will give some added insulation to the bulbs. Place the container into the hole in the bed and then surround it with fallen leaves for added protection and insulation.
No garden bed? No problem. While not as ideal you can store your containers in a shed or near the opening (the coldest part) of a garage and still get the benefits of fall planting. Just remember that they will need to maintain the cold temperatures for 3 months, so a heated garage is no good. If you do choose this method, be sure to move the containers back outside in late February/early March! Especially if you see them starting to wake up.
Protecting Your Containers
Through the winter you may get some critters scavenging your garden for a snack, so you’ll need some sort of way to keep your bulbs out of reach. Chicken wire is a great tool and can be used to cover the top of your container. To secure it in place, find a few large rocks in your garden and place them on top of the chicken wire. That way you’re able to keep the critters out while rain and moisture can still get in. If you want even more protection, try placing a crate upside down over the container (see above photo). It allows for a greater level of protection while still giving a path for the rain. If you choose to keep your container in the garage, it is still wise to protect them from any unwanted critters and do additional research for best practices.
Spring has sprung! Once the winter has passed and all of your bulbs have started to wake up from their hibernation you’ll need to move into action. Like I mentioned earlier, the benefits of using this method include earlier blooms and staggered blooms. As your flowers start to wake up, you will notice that they won’t all bloom at the same time. Note: Pay close attention to your bulbs’ packaging, as this will indicate timing of bloom. The timing will be either early, mid, or late spring. By planting in containers those bloom times will likely be even earlier. It’s such a blessing to have fresh blooms throughout the spring months! While your plants in the landscape may be just coming to life, you can disperse these bulb containers throughout your garden to bring color to the landscape. Plan your selection well as some will bloom later than others, leaving you with new flowers every few weeks.
I highly recommend planting three to five matching containers filled with the same mix of bulbs to bring in colors throughout your garden. Last year I planted 15 Apricot Impression Tulips & 15 Pink Pride Daffodils together in one pot and made two more matching containers with the same type of bulbs. When they started blooming I placed each container in a different spot for splashes of color throughout my front yard. It can really add to the aesthetic of your garden!
There you have it! I hope you enjoyed learning about planting your bulbs in containers for the winter. Remember, before you do any planting it is crucial that you know your growing zone, and the temperatures in your area throughout the winter. Once you decide it is safe to plant, start your prep! Winter is coming, and as gardeners we need to be one step ahead.
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Spring Bulb Planting Timeline:
Zone 1 (below -50° F): Early September
Zone 2 (-50 to -40° F): Early September
Zone 3 (-40 to -30° F): Mid-September
Zone 4 (-30 to -20° F): Late September to early October
Zone 5 (-20 to -10° F): Late September to early October
Zone 6 (-10 to 0° F): Mid-October
Zone 7 (0 to 10° F): Early November
Zone 8* (10 to 20° F): Early November
Zone 9* (20 to 30° F): Early December
Zone 10* (30 to 40° F): Mid-December
Zone 11* (Above 40° F): Late December
*Need 10 to 12 week cold treatment.