In the Garden:
New England
November, 2001
Regional Report

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It's not too late to plant daffodils.

Bulbs in the Snow

Well, we've had our first significant snowfall -- 3 or 4 inches -- here in northern Vermont and, once again, I'm late planting my bulbs. The same thing happens every year. I buy my bulbs early and start planting them, but get busy with other things and don't finish. Then, as I set out on a cold, blustery day to plant the rest of the bulbs, I promise myself that I'll get them in early next year.

Planting Time

Fortunately, of all the different types and forms of plants, bulbs are some of the most forgiving, especially daffodils and smaller bulbs like crocus and scilla. Although it would be best to have them in the ground in October, even bulbs planted now, in mid November, will likely survive and even flourish.

I appreciate the tradition of fall bulb planting. While everything else in the garden is winding down, it's nice to take a break from removing frost-killed plants and plant something new. However, it's not just tradition that has us planting bulbs in the fall. Why don't we plant bulbs in the spring -- when the weather is warming?

Time for Roots to Grow

First of all, bulbs need time in the fall to develop a strong root system. Although air temperatures may dip into the teens and twenties, soil cools down more slowly -- the soil 6 or 8 inches down may remain in the 40s or 50s into early winter, depending on weather conditions and insulating mulch or snow cover. The bulbs' roots will continue to grow -- without the burden of foliage to maintain.

Chilling Requirements

Secondly, hardy bulbs are just one example of the many types of plants that require a period of chilling. These plants must be exposed to cool temperatures for a specific length of time before the plants will be triggered into breaking dormancy. Chilling requirements are an amazing adaptation for plants in temperate regions. Otherwise, what would keep a plant from sprouting during a January thaw? This adaptation keeps plants from being "fooled" into "thinking" it's spring, before it really is.

A plant's chilling requirement is the amount of time the plant must be exposed to cool temperatures -- between about 32F and 45F -- before the plant breaks dormancy. Times when the temperature drops below 32F or rises above 45F don't count toward the chilling requirement. Incredibly, plants are somehow able to keep track of the amount of time they are exposed to this very specific range of temperatures. Once this requirement is met, the plants will be ready to sprout when environmental conditions are favorable.

Chilling requirements also explain why pussy willow, forsythia, and fruit tree branches brought indoors in the fall won't sprout and flower. But the same branches brought indoors in early spring will provide a wonderful display -- because their chilling requirements have been met.

If you haven't planted any bulbs this fall, you may be able to get some good deals at your local garden center. But don't wait. The sooner you plant them, the longer they'll have to develop roots and provide you with a wonderful show next spring. As long as you can dig in the soil, you can plant bulbs. Whatever you do, don't hold off on planting your bulbs until next spring -- they will likely dry out in storage. Treat bulbs like the living plants that they are, and get them settled into their new home as soon as possible.

As I head out to the garden to plant my bulbs, grumbling about the cold, I'll be thinking about the incredible ways plants have evolved to survive our harsh environment. And I'll be sure to think about those poor souls in the south, who have to chill their bulbs in the refrigerator for 8 or even 14 weeks!


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