Ask the Gardener: Don’t panic if you haven’t planted your fall bulbs yet

Ask the Expert Gardening
Mail-order bulb companies may be facing a deluge in orders from gardeners stuck in quarantine. Adobe Stock

What to do this week Fall has been a climate roller coaster. A late-but-sudden frost turned homes and garages into refuges for hastily harvested vegetables and flowers. Then came an early snowstorm that bowed and broke many trees that still had their leaves. This was followed by balmy weather perfect for cleaning up the mess. Though more people are leaving their ornamental garden standing until spring as a favor to winter birdlife, it is still a good practice to clean up fall vegetable beds to protect future crops from pests and plant diseases that may winter over. So dispose of post-harvest debris. Organize your tool storage with shelves and racks. Stick plant stakes in 5-gallon buckets. Scrape soil off tools and then wipe or spray the metal parts with vegetable oil or a lubricant to prevent rust. Drain and store hoses so they don’t burst because of trapped frozen water this winter.

Q. I usually buy fall bulbs at my local nursery. This year, due to the pandemic, I tried ordering by mail. The shipment date was supposed to be Oct. 21. I have had to call them twice. They are swamped with orders and are very hard to contact. Is it too late for me to plant bulbs? Can I store them and plant them in the spring?

N.S., Plymouth

A. Home gardening has been popular this year! I think most of the bulb mail-order houses have been running behind because of the deluge of orders from gardeners, often newbies, stuck in quarantine. The same thing happened in April, when mail-order companies ran out of many vegetable seeds. The good news about delayed shipments is that it doesn’t make much difference; you can plant most bulbs very late. They tolerate cold weather much better than you or I. I’ve used hot water to defrost the soil for bulb planting in January. While no fun for me, the gardener, the flowers came up fine. I did this because spring bulbs CANNOT be stored over the winter. If you find an overlooked bag of bulbs, plant them outdoors anyway, or pot them with purchased soil mix and then put the pots outdoors. Fall bulbs require several weeks of cold winter temperatures before they can sprout.


Q. I used to get a lot of blooms from my blue hydrangeas, but in recent years I’ve seen very few. Why?

S.N., Southborough

A. Most colored hydrangeas form flower buds in the fall that must survive the winter weather to bloom the following year. You’d think global warming would result in milder winters and higher bud survival, but unfortunately it also makes the weather more erratic, which is always bad for plants. A couple of suddenly cold, windy nights in March can “freeze dry’’ hydrangea buds just coming out of dormancy, even if the overall winter was relatively mild. For insulation from the cold, you can surround hydrangeas now with chicken wire and fill this temporary fencing with lofty fall leaves like oak to cover the entire plant, since the buds are at the top. At the end of March, disassemble and store the wire and compost the leaves, preferably in two stages. Don’t bother doing this for hydrangea species with white flowers, which are generally more cold hardy.

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