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Think spring as you toil in the mud with fall plantings

Garden books, magazines and online videos show the right way to plant bulbs and other plants. You see a slim, attractive gardener, dressed in clean pants with her shirt tucked in. The sun is shining. The tools are within reach. The ground is level, and the soil is prepared. She digs, amends the soil, places the plants and covers them. The hose is nearby to soak the planting hole and water the new plants deeply.

Afterward, the gardener looks back at the bed, its surface raked and mulched evenly, with a satisfied smile. In the "after" picture, we see next spring's beautiful garden, all the plants blooming together.

I want it like that. It's not like that. Not at all.

>Sunday planting

Last Sunday was perfect for planting my last four shrubs and all the bulbs I'd been hoarding. (Well, nearly perfect; the soil was still wet, but the rain had stopped and the sun finally appeared.)

The temperature was about 50 degrees, so I layered on some shirts over my gardening pants (you can tell by the stained, baggy knees) and mud boots. I collected a basket of tools and bulbs, the bulb fertilizer, a shovel and hoe.

Oh, boy! Happiness.

The first challenge was planting on a slope. The plan was to place four 'Gro-low' sumacs across the front bank near the road. They are great plants that grow to only about 2 1/2 feet tall but spread 5 feet wide.

I saw a bank of them near Cornell University. They have glossy, green leaves that turn flame red in fall -- perfect for my bank. Then I'd surround them with hundreds of narcissus, tall yellow King Alfreds and white ones with orange cups, and some dramatic alliums ('Schubertii,' the 15-inch ones with giant purple heads like sparklers!)

"Where to work from?" I wondered.

Landscapers had cleared the overgrown bank for me (formerly goose grass, myrtle, golden rod, ditch lilies, garlic mustard, grapevines and invasive Japanese honeysuckles rooting in).They installed attractive, rustic stone retaining walls and added several inches of nice soil.

But the walls weren't for stepping on, and the soil was mucky and too nice to trample. I would have to work from the top or the bottom, requiring movements suitable for a contortionist.

In a few places I placed a board across a section of bank, to spread my weight -- but of course, boards are slippery when coated with wet clay.

Somehow I dug four holes.

Holes for shrubs should be as deep as the root ball or container (14 inches for the sumacs) and three times as wide. That would be half the slope -- not realistic here.

When you plant on a slope you need to make holes that are roughly wedge-shaped, into the bank, to catch some water while the plants take root. Under the nice 3 inches of topsoil I hit hard, yellow clay -- as inhospitable a soil as a gardener or plant could encounter. I dug wide sideways holes, but left a clay lip, like a pond, to keep all the water from running away. I amended the soil with compost as I backfilled.

"I'm creating the teacup effect. This is not a good thing," I thought.

Cornell professors teach us not to make a smooth-sided planting hole, in clay, that will retain water and rot the plant roots; also the roots will never leave the amended soil once they hit that clay wall.

They named it "the teacup effect." So I tried to give the roots some roughed-up soil to reach into, and some underground escape paths for drainage -- but enough of a wall to catch rainfall.

Hmmm hardly perfect.

So far this was really hard work. And not unnoticed by the passing crowd. Some bikers and joggers smiled and half-waved. Cars honked. Some were friendly honks; perhaps they knew me, or were just afraid I'd topple into their paths.

Some honks were distinctly mocking, maybe responding to the mature lady's behind pointing skyward (after I got past the first hour of demurely standing up whenever a car went by).

"Thanks a whole lot. You try this and see how you look," I commented to the honkers.

At last it was bulb-planting time! I sat for a minute, dividing up my loot into piles of 25 bulbs, aiming for some symmetry since there are steps up the middle of the bank. I started with a pointed hoe to make trenches, which would have worked for small bulbs that only need to go down a few inches.

I was planting big fat daffodils, however, requiring holes 8 inches deep. I needed a shovel. Where's the shovel? Of course, it's over there, and the fertilizer somewhere else, and the hand trowel -- up, down, up down, getting tired!

One bulb-planting trick really helps in tough situations, or for mass plantings. This was the landscaper's intent for this bank: Just spread the bulbs out on top of existing soil (prepped ahead of time), and dump topsoil on top of them at a suitable depth.

Since I did choose large bulbs I really did have to do some trenching -- but in fact I only went halfway. I planted those daffodils only 4 inches deep (shallower as the afternoon wore on) and will definitely spread a compost/topsoil mix over them -- maybe tomorrow.

Then I may lay out some chicken wire, lest the squirrels start a volleyball tournament on location. Then I'll mulch over it all.

Finally, I looked back proudly at my planting. It appeared bumpy, with clay and rock ponds around the shrubs, and some irregular mounds where I'd patted down the bulbs. The bulb bags, tools and pots were scattered willy-nilly, and I was covered with mud.

But I cleaned up, smiling all the way. The process may not have looked like much, but the garden -- like the magazine picture -- will be gorgeous next spring.

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Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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