Hartley Magazine

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A Retort for Winter’s early roar

Winter has raged into Chicago. It was down in the teens a week before Thanksgiving, the kind of weather that freezes the soil like concrete and drives even diehard gardeners like me to the shelter of a greenhouse.

I can’t quit gardening yet, though, because I have a problem: Some 300 bulbs I didn’t manage to get planted. In most autumns, the ground doesn’t freeze solid until December. So even though I had a busy fall and didn’t get my scilla and daffodils and species tulips into the ground in October, I thought I still had time. Whoops.

So what now? I plant the bulbs in containers. It’s simple enough, if I can find a garden center that still has potting mix in stock. I have plenty of plastic pots that will fit inside my decorative containers next spring.

The tricky part is finding a place to store the planted pots over the winter—a Three Bears kind of place, cold enough but not too cold.

The bulbs we plant for spring flowers come from high, cold, rocky places, mostly in the mountains of central Asia. They evolved to wait out tough winters and they won’t flower unless they’ve spent enough time in the cold. The rule of thumb is that they need 14 weeks at below 40 degrees.

If they freeze solid, though, bulbs won’t bloom, and in containers they are much more exposed and vulnerable to freezing than they are in the ground. So the pots need some shelter.

A greenhouse or cold frame will work fine, as long as it isn’t heated. In a heated greenhouse, the bulbs won’t stay dormant. An unheated garage also will work; the bulbs need a little moisture, but they don’t need light until spring.

I don’t have an unheated greenhouse or a garage. What I do have is a cluster of compost bins and a lot of fallen leaves. So my plan is to pot up my bulbs, tuck the pots between the compost bins and pile them with leaves for insulation. I’d bury the pots right in the bins, but I’m afraid the bacterial activity in the compost, even in midwinter, might actually keep the bulbs too warm.

In late winter, I can force some of the potted bulbs into flower in the house. They’d be lovely in a conservatory with snow falling outside. Or I can simply uncover them and let them bloom on schedule. They can be early entries in the decorative containers that later will be filled with annual flowers or houseplants.

After the bulbs bloom, I should be able to transplant them, foliage and all, into the perennial beds where I would have planted them if I’d gotten organized this fall. They’ll collect sunlight until they have built a flower for the following year and then go dormant. And maybe next fall I’ll either be more realistic about how many bulbs I can get planted or actually get them planted in time.