Down to earth – Still time to plant …

… those ticking time bombs of hope. (There really is. Here at least.) Originally published November 13 in East Bay/South Coast Life.

Now that we’ve had a killing frost, not to mention a super storm and slushy nor’easter, the garden is finally shutting itself down, and my days of feeling guilty for not accomplishing as much as I’d wish I had are coming to an end.

Whatever didn’t get divided and transplanted might just wait for spring now. But I’ll keep feeling guilty about not planting bulbs. And I’ll definitely kick myself come spring if I don’t plant a few because unlike transplanting the daisies, it really can’t be postponed until then. That said, the window of opportunity is still wide open. As long as the ground isn’t frozen solid and we’re still months away from March, there’s time.

I’m deeply conflicted about that because I don’t enjoy planting bulbs, which is strange considering how easy it is compared to transplanting a shrub or dividing a perennial. They’re such self-contained, efficient little things — just tiny ticking time bombs of hope. To light their fuse all they need is to be tucked into a deep slot of earth, down two to three times as deep as they are wide around the middle. Easy, right? Not if your soil is as stony as mine or if you’re trying to get them as close as possible to shrubs and perennials in an effort to avoid digging them back up again when you go to plant something else in June.

I usually get down on all fours with my Japanese digging knife (hori-hori). It’s sharp enough to slide between rocks and roots and only as wide as the average tulip bomb. I make a stab or two to loosen the soil a bit and while the hori-hori is still buried to the handle, I shove the bulb in, pointy side up, along the steel to the bottom, cave the soil back in as I pull the blade back out and move on to the next stab. I know a gardener who uses a pointed seed-planting tool — a dibble — for planting small bulbs. She punches holes, drops a bulb down and fills in after it with compost. That’s brilliant, even if hauling a tub of compost around the garden seems more effortful than appealing.

Part of me wants to plant small bulbs enough to follow through. Things like crocus, winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa forbesii) and grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) don’t need to be planted very deeply. I also love that they carpet the ground floor of spring in the colors of sun and sky, and naturalize freely. Maybe a little too freely in the case of grape hyacinth, but that just means there’s no need to replant next year unless I decide I need them somewhere else, too (in which case I would probably opt to scatter their seeds or transplant patches of bulbils in spring). As much as I love seeing tulips in the garden and miss them when they disappear, they do diminish after a couple-three years and I have to wrestle with the will I/won’t I bulb-planting guilt all over again.

'Lady Jane' tulip bomb

I shouldn’t generalize because not all tulips die out. Tulipa clusiana‘Lady Jane’ for one, whose bulbs really do look like little brown bombs at least until they go off in early May with narrow blue-green leaves and exquisitely delicate pink-flared petals, is a species variety. Species tulips should last longer in the garden and even increase, unless squirrels eat the bulbs. Cross your fingers that this year there are enough acorns to go around. Otherwise, try pinning chicken wire over your planting sites or spicing the soil up every so often with a dash of red-hot chili flakes.

This is good — thanks for listening. I have just about talked myself into planting a few time bombs before tucking myself in for winter hibernation. The only thing that could hold me back now is availability. I wasn’t on the ball back in July when the catalogs arrived, so I’ll hope that the local nurseries haven’t sold out of crocus yet. But if they have, I could always console myself with forcing amaryllis grenades inside instead.

(In the end I planted a couple dozen crocus and chionodoxa and some leftover throwaway tulips from work. No amaryllis at all.)


I have to confess that in years past, whenever I read a blog or heard a story about someone who hadn’t yet planted bulbs before it snowed or was otherwise unpleasant and quite late, I felt a tiny bit smug – and a lot relieved – that I had managed to get my bulbs in earlier. (It wasn’t ever much earlier though and my tulips were usually thrown in quick pits at dusk right before a nor’ easter  or similarly soggy November weather event.) I’m not sure what happened this year but it seemed to come down forgetting that I even had bulbs to plant – mostly foster Allium ‘Hair’ from work, a handful of orphan King Alfred daffs and a found pocketful of October bridal-shower crocus in a coat I never wear. And last night, before we’ve even had a killing frost (what is up with the lateness of winter this year?), it snowed.

There’s nothing like the first wet snow to jazz this lazypants into action. Better-late-than-never I guess, today I finally threw cold uncoilable hoses into the shed with the last terracotta pots and porch chairs; harvested cabbage – miraculously non-rotten yet; and threw the bulbs, as usual, into quick pits. But like anyone else who has gone through this, I’ll just look forward to spring and chances are I’ll even get to feel slightly smug that plants grow despite my worst efforts.

Give it to me straight – how happy are you that you got your bulbs planted back when the weather was perfectly pleasant?

Asleep on the couch

streetside tulips, etcorphan tulip and some kind of Rubus that wants to take overThis is a tough time of year for me. For any gardener, I’m sure. But maybe especially for any impatient gardener, which is what I am. I want spring to last and last so that I can squeeze every last gush of adorable out of all the baby growth but I want my garden to already be a grownup. Right now. And so every day, after mentally stressing over plant placement, digging scads of holes and planting at work, I come home and do the same thing – only on a much smaller scale. And promptly after planting sweet peas at dusk, or finding just the right place for a new Tiger Eye sumac and last year’s nine bark, which was in the wrong place – and digging three holes that feel more like 10 work ones – I can’t help but fall asleep on the couch. I don’t go out to parties. I don’t sit at the computer. I don’t sweep the floor or bring in vases of daffodils or tulips. I rise only to eat, watch 1/3 of a movie or get ready for bed at an absurdly early hour.

mint on the marchAnd I do wrong things in my attempt to have an insta-garden. I plant aggressive things like butterbur, plume poppy, autumn olive (at least it’s a sterile form), and even mint. In the ground. Nobody plants mint in the ground! And I plant them in wrong places. demur looking plume poppy (on the right side) before it grows 8' tall.The mint found the foundation crack that leads directly into the kitchen – perhaps it’s headed for a mojito. I can tell you, since it grew into the path, that it makes a brilliantly fragrant steppable… But then plume poppy should not be planted anywhere near a walkway let alone within 2 feet of one – it just shouldn’t! And I know it without having to make the mistake first. Even to move it now will cause havoc, chaos and exponential spread. But in pursuit of lush, there it is. And there it may remain because now I’m asleep on the couch.

Do you do wrong things on purpose too? Are you more patient than I? Are you more awake?