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Finally, a day to plant the last of the bulbs and spread the mulch

This week kindly offered one more day of sunshine. I needed the sun to motivate myself to go out there – I confess to getting the blues from gray November days. So outside I went to plant the last bulbs and get on with winter mulching.

Last bulb planting

I will never tell anyone to do as I do. I told you (and myself) to plant the bulbs in September or early October because they need to start growing some roots before the freeze comes. Planted this late they may be puny or fail to flower in spring. And yet a heap of bulbs sat in a basket near my door glaring at me until today.

(I have excuses of course: Somebody nice gave most of them to me just last week. Or I held them back to show them on television on a recent Sunday morning. Or I saved a few for “forcing” for a late window indoor display.)

No matter the excuses, there they waited. I decided to do it the laziest way possible. In one section of the perennial bed nearest the house, I roughed up the soil between some lambs’ ears and toad lilies. I spread out the 11 hyacinths, a little too crowded together according to the package.

These were big bulbs that should be buried at least 7 inches down. I pushed them about 3 inches into the ground and went for last bit of compost and garden soil that I had set aside. It was great stuff – a combination of Big Yellow Bag garden soil that I had not used up, and the last half bag of Bumper Crop Compost. I dumped about 3 inches of it on top of the bulbs and patted them down.

Beyond the driveway I have a new bed for growing some new trial roses and perennials, and the soil was already quite prepared – a perfect place for some new large Scilla siberica (Siberian squill). With some shallow trenching, I spread out at least 25 of them and poured more of the compost/soil mix on top of them.

A bag of Windflowers (Anemone blanda) called for a similar treatment at the far corner of that bed.

But wait! I was out of compost and soil … Would I actually have to dig a proper bed for the bulbs? With great relief, I remembered the homemade worm compost I had left under a picnic table to dry out a bit last week. It is very dense – emptying my huge vermiculture bin had been a two-woman job – but it was perfect to dump on top of the small anemone bulbs. With that rich compost (made over years from my coffee grounds and salad scraps) I’m expecting them to be double the normal size by May.

Many gardeners worry about squirrels digging up bulbs, or rabbits and deer eating the plants as they emerge in spring. My solution this season was ready: My husband had helped me last June by cutting up squares of chicken wire to cover pots of Florida tropical bulbs – surely chipmunk or squirrel bait. The wire pieces were sitting in an annoying pile, the edges grabbing each other or clutching at any coat that passed by.

Perfect! I spread them over all bulb plantings and used a few little rocks to hold them down.

Does this project sound like lots of work? Truly, I – middle-aged lady with flawed back – did this in about one hour. Don’t let those potential spring flower bulbs rot in your house. You too can do this and be guilt-free.

Time to mulch

Gardening teachers recommend mulching after the ground freezes. The reason: If you spread a cozy blanket of mulch during warmer weather, little rodents may nest at the base of your woody plants or around the crowns of the perennials. Also sometimes fungi grow well in warm, moist conditions. So wait until the soil is very cold. Now is the time.

You have choices about how to do it, but here is what works for me: I gather mulch during October, mostly bags of chopped leaves and pine needles. Sometimes I collect discarded straw bales after Halloween. I also gather piles of newspaper and cardboard ahead of time. (Avoid shiny, coated cardboard or paper; colored newspaper is fine.) You may even buy mulch if you don’t have your own or neighbors’ leaves.

On mulching day I look around the garden for the places that most need protection or weed blocking. If I have extra compost lying around I spread it first, especially on the hardest clay or impoverished soil.

Then I spread thick sections of newspaper or cardboard to block all light from the weedy areas. I put the newspaper close to the trunks or crowns of the plants but not touching them. If you have perennials that don’t have obvious crowns or stems sticking up, it’s smart to mark them with chopsticks or paint stirrers or some kind of flags.

By spring, the paper will have largely decomposed – it’s fodder for earthworms. On top of the paper I spread the straw or collected leaf or pine needle mulch at least 3 inches thick.

If you run out of paper, it’s fine to simply spread the mulching material, but weeds poke through loose mulch a bit quicker when the late winter sun warms them.

Finally, I suggest saving some of the loose mulch (bagged or the collected leaves) in an unfrozen garage or porch for the last step: When everything is really frozen, spread mulch right over the perennial crowns, including roses (several inches over their tops). Also dump mulch over the top of the potted plants (unplanted perennials and shrubs) that you are storing outside over winter. (Typically we have clustered them near the house foundation.)

What a difference mulching makes for ultimate soil quality – over time it breaks down and adds organic matter to the soil – as well as plant survival. Also, I guarantee that the outdoor work will leave you feeling invigorated and quite smug about your accomplishment.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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