Archive for the ‘Planting’ Category

When to Plant Bulbs in Fall

Though they bloom in spring, flower bulbs that are planted in fall are known as “fall bulbs”. Popular spring-flowering plants like daffodils, tulips, crocus, and hyacinth are fall bulbs. Allium, scilla, anemones, and Asiatic lilies are planted in fall too. With a seasonal range of three months, when to plant fall bulbs is a question many gardeners struggle with.

Daffodils are a welcome sign of spring

Daffodils are a welcome sign of spring

Timely fall planting allows roots to develop before the ground freezes and prepares the plant for quick spring growth and flowering. If you plant too early the bulbs may use critical energy reserves and can begin to send up new shoots, exposing the young growth to winter kill. Prolonged exposure to warm, moist soil may promote fungal problems and rot. Plant too late and root growth may not be enough for the plant to flower properly.

To flower in spring, fall bulbs require exposure to cold temperatures. This chilling period triggers them to break dormancy when temperatures warm in spring. It’s all about planting early and warm enough for the bulbs to begin developing, but late enough for them to stop developing shortly after to start soaking in the cold.

Tulips need to be planted in fall

Tulips need to be planted in fall

There is no single right time for all gardeners. The proper time for planting fall bulbs may be September in Wyoming or North Dakota, October in Colorado or Kansas, November in Oregon or Nevada, and December in Virginia or North Carolina. Gardeners need to find out what’s right for their individual gardens; one-size-fits-all advice from gardening books or magazines may lead to incorrect guidance.

Cooler soil temperatures are a primary indicator for proper planting time.  Ideally, soil temperature needs to be below 60F; a temperature of 55F degrees is perfect. The problem for the average gardener is that few gardens come with soil thermometers. As a guideline, soil temperatures usually cool to this target after a few weeks of nighttime temperatures regularly between 40 and 50.

There are also natural indicators that some gardeners use:

Plant just after fall foliage peaks
Plant when you no longer hear crickets at night
Plant when you see flocks of birds heading south
Plant when you regularly need a jacket to work in your garden
Plant the week after you smell your neighbor’s fireplace for the first time
Plant when you have to turn your car heater on in the morning
Plant when your dog moves from the shade to the sun
Plant when your grapes are ripe
Plant on Columbus Day, Halloween, Veteran’s Day, or Thanksgiving (depending on your zone)
Plant garlic on the first day of school
Plant after you blow out your lawn sprinklers

These suggestions are very unscientific and rely on local conditions that may not match your climate. But if you find a natural indicator that works for you, use it.

Some gardening experts recommend planting bulbs six weeks before a hard, ground-freezing frost. That’s a little too hard to predict for many regions. If unseasonal warm weather lingers, bulbs may end up waiting in the ground for the cold to arrive for two months or more. That’s much too early.

Planting within a few days of your average first frost date is a good guideline. That’s what I typically use. The average first frost date means that historically half of first frosts occur before that date and half occur after. For me, that’s the first week of October. By that time cool nights have cooled the soil but there are still enough warm days ahead to keep the soil warm enough for root development.

Irises aren't true bulbs and do best when planted in late summer or early fall

Irises aren’t true bulbs and do best when planted in late summer or early fall

Check with local gardening experts for recommendations on planting fall bulbs. Diane Brunjes, Certified Colorado Gardener and the gardener for the Horticultural Art Society of Colorado Springs, recommends October planting versus September for our area too. In our climate, “It’s too warm early in the season,” she says. She’s right.

A little too late is usually better than a little too early. There is a four to six-week target window for planting bulbs, but as long as you can still work in the soil it’s probably not too late. Crocus, scilla, and snow drops do better planted earlier. Daffodils, hyacinth, and tulips can handle late planting. In fact, tulips can be planted in frozen ground and will probably still do fine.

If you miss the ideal planting time and still have bulbs you purchased, plant them anyway. Most bulbs will dry out and be worthless if left to sit in their bag over the winter. They stand a chance of growing while in the ground. Plant them and hope for the best; you may be surprised by the results.

If you’re still wondering when to plant your bulbs take a look around your garden. When you walk outside at night are you cold without a jacket? Have your pepper and tomato plants withered from frost? Are your raspberries fruiting? Are mum flowers drying on the plant? These are all signs that the season is changing and winter is coming. Don’t delay too long. It may be the perfect time to put those bulbs in the ground.

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Sow Cool Season Plants in Summer for a Fall Crop

Two harvests in the same growing season are easy to accomplish. Many gardeners sow and plant in spring, spend summer tending to their crops, harvest in early fall, and then wrap it all up and wait until spring to repeat the same process. With little effort you can double your garden’s output with sow, tend, sow, harvest, tend, and then harvest again. Then you can spend winter satisfied that your garden played double duty to produce all it could.

Grow chard to harvest in fall

Grow chard to harvest in fall

In late summer you sow seeds for cool season plants that will grow as temperatures begin to decline. They’ll be ready to harvest after the first frosts have appeared and long after the last tomatoes were pulled from the vines. There is no need to create new gardens; you use the same beds you do now.

Cool season crops are primarily the ones that provide leaves, stems, and roots for harvest. These crops include:

Arugula, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, collards, endive, fennel, kale, kohrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, peas, parsnips, potatoes, radishes, spinach, turnips

Peas, especially, snow peas do well in cold

Peas, especially, snow peas do well in cold

Many gardeners grow these plants in spring and hope for a slow start to summer so the plants will mature and be ready for harvest before high heat causes them to bolt and their taste turns bitter. We take advantage of their natural ability to tolerate low temperatures by planting early.

We can also use that ability to plant late. The mature plant tolerates the low temperatures of fall, there is no risk of bolting, and many people believe many of these crops taste superior after exposure to frost.

Those of us who sow in early spring and hope the soil has warmed enough to initiate germination are ready for a percentage of our seeds to never grow. Those of us who sow in late summer are pleased that the warm soil provides speedy germination with little seed loss.

Early seed and plant care is different when you plant late. In spring there is less need for extra watering; lower temperatures mean less evaporation and there is always a chance of rain or late snow. In summer, the heat requires more gardener attention to maintaining moist soil conditions for seeds and young plants; you may need to mist or water the plants two or three times a day in harsh sun.

Temperatures above 80F (27C) will cause broccoli and spinach to bolt quickly. Sowing in a shady spot or setting up a row cover can reduce this concern.

Once the plants have a few sets of leaves the need for watering becomes less than in late summer. While early plants need more water to combat the increasing summer heat, later plants require less water as the decreasing temperatures bring comfort. The plants are less stressed in fall. They grow in the conditions they like best; they’re called cool season plants for a reason.

As long as the day temperatures remain about 10 to 15 degrees above freezing (40F – 50F, 4C – 10C) you can expect the crops to continue growing and producing. When the day temps remain below 40F (4C) the plants may begin to suffer. Careful harvesting will still produce results. The center of the plant may still have new, tasty leaves while the exterior leaves look frazzled.

Hard freezes, cold days, and icy conditions will adversely affect most cool season crops and will spell the end for your second harvest, but you can delay winter by mulching heavily with straw and using a season extender like cold frames, cloches, or plastic tunnels. I use my hoophouse system to harvest well into November and even December.

Broccoli and beets ready for overnight protection

Broccoli and beets ready for overnight protection

Some crops like cabbage, kale, and spinach can do well, even in snow. With heavy mulching, beets, leeks, and parsnips can often be overwintered and harvested in spring (I’ve done this).

Use your entire vegetable garden for fall planting. If you have a cool-season spring bed for broccoli, spinach, or lettuce and then let that bed remain filled with bolty, straggly, dried plants throughout the summer, rip those plants out and sow again for a fall crop.

Your tomatoes, peppers, and melons will decline in cooling weather. Anticipate their decline and sow seeds among those plants, in the same beds. When the first frost zaps your tomato plant, cut it out and let the cabbage and broccoli growing nearby overtake that space.

Root crops won’t be as big as spring plantings, but may be tastier. Try growing small, thumb-sized carrot varieties or harvest them young before the ground freezes. Beet roots will be harvested when they’re just a few inches big, but the beet leaves can be harvested continually.

Beet leaves are edible and tasty

Beet leaves are edible and tasty

Garden pests can be less of a concern for a fall garden. Many insect pests are less active, if not gone, in fall. The weeds will spend all summer attacking aren’t active in fall. Even deer seem to be scarce as they make their way to find a winter bed.

While growing a second crop in the same season sounds like extra work, it doesn’t need to be. Summer garden beds should be cleaned up before winter so insects don’t have a place to overwinter. That clean up works well to prepare the beds for fall crops.

You’ll spend a few more days in the garden watering and harvesting, but is that really a bad thing? Fall gardening allows you to do more of what you like and for me that’s a good thing.

Plant a Fall Crop

Sowing and planting in summer is a great way to get the most out of your garden space. I just sowed beets and broccoli in early August and will be able to squeeze in another crop of vegetables before winter snow and hard freezes put an end to my growing season. The plants mature in fall and provide a nice second harvest. This fall crop allows a garden to produce a full second season.

Beets are a good fall crop

My lettuce and spinach beds were pretty well spent after the plants bolted and went to seed. Many gardeners would clean up those beds and let them lie fallow until spring, but I used that space to plant another crop. That essentially doubles my garden output without increasing its overall size.

The key is understanding the difference between cool season and warm season garden plants. Cool season plants are the ones we usually plant in spring. They include cabbage, lettuce, spinach, kale, peas, radish, beets, and chard. These plants can handle an occasional bout with cold temperatures. Warm season plants are the ones we plant after the last frost date. They include tomatoes, peppers, vine squash, and melons. When those plants experience frost they shrivel and die.

We can sow cool season plant seeds in early spring because the young plants aren’t killed by late frost. Many gardeners know that it takes awhile for many of those seeds to germinate because of cold soil temperatures. When they do begin to grow, their productive season can be short because the heat of summer tends to affect them adversely and they flower, go to seed, and fade quickly.

Sowing these same seeds in late summer results in quick germination in the warm soil. There is no cold threat to the young plants and they grow quickly. As they mature and begin to fruit an occasional early frost may threaten, but the larger plants can shrug it off easily. There is absolutely no threat of high temperatures causing the plant to bolt so they produce fruit until they die.

That’s one of the greatest advantages to planting a fall crop:  the production of fruit is often longer and greater than spring crops. These plants often relish the cool temperatures and rather than respond poorly to hot days they respond richly to cold days. Many people think these plants produce tastier produce after they’ve been exposed to cold.

Treat your second season garden just as you would a spring one. Before planting, amend the soil and prepare the bed. A good dose of compost or aged manure is a nice boost to soil that has already been used for a recent crop. You usually have plenty of time to do this from when the plants fade in mid summer to when you plant in late summer.

I amended one fall bed with biochar

Mulch becomes an important factor in the success of a fall crop. Mulch moderates soil temperature. In a spring planting for summer harvest, the mulch helps keep the soil from getting too warm. In a summer planting for fall harvest, the mulch helps keep the soil from getting too cool.

Be aware of different irrigation needs than you may be used to. The seedlings and young plants are beginning to grow when it’s still hot out. A new spring bed may need watering twice a day to keep the soil moist. A new summer bed may need watering four or five times a day to stay moist. To help keep the soil from drying out quickly, I drape fabric over the bed to shade the soil until the plants establish themselves and the days begin to cool. Row covers and shade cloth are ideal.

A recycled patio umbrella provides shade

Once the plants mature, their water needs will be less than the same plants in early summer. In the cooler days of fall, there is less evaporation and water loss due to transpiration. Mulch can mask the true level of soil moisture so be sure to physically check the soil before you water. Over watering and drowning roots is common in second season gardens.

Be ready for different growing characteristics. When I sowed beet seeds in spring it took almost two weeks for the first sprouts to appear; even cool season plants need the soil temperature to be warm enough to effectively germinate. The beet seeds I sowed in summer germinated after four days.

Many root crops are well suited as second season crops. Carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, and radishes do well when planted up to two months before the first frost. For me that’s early August, but for many gardeners that time extends into September or October. A thick mulch helps keep the ground from freezing early and affecting the growth and harvest of the roots.

Cabbage, green onions, spinach, cauliflower, snap and snow peas, should be planted a little earlier to ensure they complete their growth before cold sets in. For me that was mid July, but for many gardeners that time is now.

Tough greens like endive, mustard, chard, spinach can handle cold well. Chard, in particular, grows in snow and has a nice sweet flavor as a result.

Second season gardens offer advantages that are easy to overlook. The cooler temperatures affect weeds and garden pests too. Less weeding and pest management chores are definitely welcomed by most gardeners. Often, it isn’t until you’re reviewing the success of your growing season with the snows falling that you realize how easy the fall crop was to maintain.

When you use a method for extending your growing season you may be able to harvest vegetables well into December and winter. (Check out my March 2, 2011, article “Extending Your Growing Season With Mini Greenhouses“).

Some of these cool season plants will continue to survive even in the harshest winters. I left my leeks, onions, shallots, beets, and parsnips in the ground through the winter. They all came back and began greening again when the spring warmth returned. The leeks and parsnips that had a winter to rest were twice the size of ones harvested before the ground froze hard.

Thick mulch helped these leeks and shallots overwinter

If you’re interested in a second fall crop but don’t want extra effort, just let your spring crops go to seed. My spinach, arugala, radish, and lettuce plants flowered, went to seed, browned, and faded. I collected some of the seeds and pulled the plants. Many of the seeds that scattered on the ground have sprouted and are ready to give me a second harvest. It helped that I amended and turned over the soil in those spots for the beets and broccoli, and I’m willing to let the volunteers share the same bed.

Some of the lettuce volunteers missed the bed

Whether planned or by accident, take advantage of the growth characteristics of cool season plants and enjoy a second season. Grow a fall crop.

The Best Way to Grow Tomatoes

Tomatoes can be found in most American vegetable gardens. For many gardeners, growing tomatoes consists of little more than buying a plant from a big box garden center and placing it in a hole in the ground. There are many other options and for you there may be a better way — actually, six different ways to plant tomatoes.

Let’s begin with a bale of straw as the planting spot. That’s right… straw. I had good success by placing a tomato plant in a hole bored into the middle of a straw bale. Begin by soaking the straw a few days before you plan to plant. This softens the straw making it easier to dig a hole; it also begins decomposition within the bale. Use a trowel to scoop out a hole 12 to 18 inches deep (30-45 cm) and fill it with compost. A standard straw bale can easily hold two or three tomato plants.

Plant in straw

Any time you plant tomatoes you should bury as much of the plant as you can to help encourage a vigorous root system (see my May 24, 2011, article “How to Plant Tomatoes“). By placing your plants deep into the holes in the moist straw bale you give the tomato roots plenty of space to expand. The straw retains moisture well and requires watering less often than other garden beds. The compost and decomposing straw provide some nutrients but you should plan to fertilize regularly.

The easiest and simplest way to plant tomatoes is in a bag of potting soil. The bag is the garden bed. Make slits in the top of the plastic potting soil bag and insert the end of your hose. Soak the potting soil well; you want it thoroughly moist. I recommend punching holes or making small slits in the bottom of the bag for drainage. Place the bag flat on the ground and wait a few days for excess water to drain, then plant your tomato horizontally through the top slit.

Tomato in a bag

You can use this method in any spot that’s just a few feet square, in between raised beds, at the end of paths, or in garden corners. The bag is very effective at retaining moisture so this method also requires less watering. However, it is a little more difficult because you have to apply water and fertilizer through the slit; it won’t catch any rain or sprinkler water.

Another flexible variation is to grow tomatoes in pots. This is a great option for gardeners without a garden spot that gets full sun or who have limited space. Big root systems make big tomatoes so use at least a 14-inch pot filled with potting soil; bigger is better. Pots tend to dry out faster than normal garden beds so these tomatoes will probably need watering every day. As the plants grow a small trellis or support will help keep the vines from sprawling everywhere.

Plant in a pot

Tomatoes in pots work well for apartment dwellers. My daughter had good results with a single pot on her balcony. Pots can be moved to take advantage of sunny spots and can be brought indoors if cold weather threatens, extending the growing season. They can also be grown just outside the kitchen door making harvesting fast and easy.

Growing tomatoes upside down is another option that has found a following in recent years. Shiny advertisements and catchy names for upside down containers make the concept appealing. Anywhere you can hang a bag becomes a potential tomato garden. Growing tomatoes this way gives you the opportunity to fill the growing bag with good potting soil and deliver water and fertilizers straight to the roots.

Upside down tomatoes

You don’t need to water as often with this method, but the structure supporting the hanging bag needs to be sturdy enough to handle the weight of soil, a big plant, and ripe tomatoes. Some manufacturers offer movable supports that can be used on a deck or patio.

A raised bed is an ideal way to grow tomatoes. Raised beds heat up sooner than open ground so tomatoes can be planted earlier than standard rows. The soil is often better and has fewer compaction issues. When mulched, watering requirements drop. Weeding and harvesting is easy because of easy access. More plants can often be grown in a smaller space.

I find that trellises work well in a raised bed because the bed structure helps support them; last year I used welded metal panels bent into an arch. It supported plastic sheets to warm the plants early on and supported the plants as they grew large.

Plants under the trellis

The most common way gardeners grow tomatoes is in rows in open beds. This method has worked well for many gardeners for a very long time and is a good way to grow if you have the space. To be most effective the entire bed should have amended soil and have a good irrigation method. Tomato plants can grow large and a trellis system is almost always needed; open bed growing limits the trellis options.

I’ve used all six methods with varied results.

Last year big tomatoes came from the straw bale. The plants did very well but as they grew large I was concerned that their weight would topple the bale or that they would sprawl too much; a trellis system was difficult to set up. Regretfully deer damaged the plants before they caused a problem.

The first tomato of the season came from the potting soil bag. That plant also had the biggest root ball. The plant did well but the specialized watering requirements added time to the process. I also found that my feet and garden hose had a tendency of snagging on the bag because it was too close to my garden path.

Claims for bumper crops abound, but I’ve grown upside down tomatoes with mostly negative results (see my May 6, 2011, article “Upside Down Tomatoes“). The plants were stunted and not nearly as large as with the other methods.

Tomatoes in pots do well with extra attention. It’s nice being able to bring the pots inside when a frost threatens and the other plants are injured; however, bigger pots are harder to move. As long as the soil doesn’t dry out this method works very well.

My favorite way to grow tomatoes is in a raised bed. I can keep my plants contained in a designated area, mulch and water as needed, and keep basic chores like weeding to a minimum. The biggest tomato plants in my garden, by a large margin, were in raised beds.

Best success in raised beds

Open row plantings work well but the space is often better used by other sprawling plants like melons or squash. For harvest, you need paths between plants and this takes up more space. Any one of the other methods of growing tomatoes is more efficient for limited garden plots.

Another option for some gardeners is hydroponic gardening. Tomatoes can be grown in water only, but this method requires specialized equipment and procedures and isn’t suitable for most home gardeners.

Experimenting with new options is fun and informational. I plan to repeat the straw bale and pot plantings, but will probably bypass the potting soil bag. Upside down tomatoes are probably gone from my garden for good. My focus will be on growing tomatoes in raised beds. I wouldn’t know about how all of these methods worked for me if I hadn’t tried them.

Regardless of which method you use, tomatoes should probably find a place in your garden. If you have a successful method continue it, but think about trying something new. Have fun.

Grow a Potato Tower

Potatoes are easy to grow in a vegetable garden. They can be started in cool weather so spring is a great time to plant, a couple weeks before your last frost date. Chit them, plant them, follow standard garden habits, and in a few months you dig up your harvest.

A typical potato harvest

I’ve written previously about some concerns with potatoes in a home garden. With standard growing methods you devote a lot of space for little comparable payout. There are many other delicious vegetables and fruits that you can grow in the same space for a better investment. In other words, it’s far cheaper to buy a 20-pound bag of potatoes from the grocery store than to grow the same quantity, and unlike many crops like tomatoes and squash, potatoes from the garden don’t taste much different than store-bought.

Potatoes are a crop that shouldn’t be grown in the same spot as the previous year. You should actually rotate the locations on at least a three-year cycle to avoid some diseases and soil issues. This can be difficult for many gardeners with small gardens.

Potatoes grow deep and like to be planted in loose, well-amended soil. Preparing the planting bed can be hard work and keeping the soil evenly moist through the growing season requires a lot of water and attention.

Another concern arises at harvest. Using a spade or garden fork to dig up the potatoes invariably results in some sliced and speared tubers. It’s hard to dig up all of the potatoes damage-free. I’ve tried many techniques and always injure some of my crop, regardless of how careful I am.

All of these issues can be dealt with by growing potatoes vertically, in a potato tower. A small space and big payout, easy rotation, easy maintenance, and easy harvesting make this an ideal method for growing potatoes.

The concept is simple: you start potatoes in an enclosed vertical planter and add soil and compost as the plant grows. Many potatoes will grow roots and ultimately new tubers wherever the main stalk is covered with soil. A seed potato planted in a garden bed will give you a handful of potatoes at harvest. If that same plant is covered with soil when it is about eight inches tall (20 cm), it will produce tubers at the original harvest depth and again at the new level. If covered with soil when it reaches eight inches again, it will produce another harvest level.

A tower three or four feet (1 to 1.3 meters) tall can multiple the quantity of potatoes that a single plant normally produces. A small planting footprint gives you a harvest comparable to a large planting bed. Just two pounds of seed potatoes can give you more than 20 pounds at harvest.

I begin making a potato tower with welded metal fencing four feet tall. A piece 12 feet long (3.6 meters) makes a tower about four feet wide when the ends are attached together. A potato tower four feet tall and four feet wide can hold many tubers. The wide tower is very stable and won’t tip over like slender ones can.

A simple metal potato tower

I select an unused spot in my garden for a tower. Since it needs just a four-foot space it can be almost anywhere. The base soil is amended and loosened as deep as possible. In this soil, I plant the prepared seed potatoes  about 4 inches deep (10 cm) and 12-15 inches apart (30-40 cm) within the four-foot ring. You can plant closer together but the final potatoes will be smaller.

Water to keep the soil moist and in a few weeks there will be potato plants growing within the tower. When the plants are about eight inches tall cover with soil, though I prefer a mix of straw and compost. The straw and compost will not weigh as much as soil and stays within the open-wire ring better. Also, it retains moisture very well and reduces the amount of watering the tower needs. If you choose to use a well-amended soil for each new level, you’ll need to support the tower with rebar stakes and wrap it with fabric or plastic to keep the soil from spilling out.

Layers of compost and straw are the growing medium

Keep evenly watered and in no time the plants will be about eight inches tall again. Cover with more straw and compost. Continue this process two or three times. Ultimately you’ll have 32 or 40 inches (.8 – 1.2 m) of soil or straw and compost inside the ring. You’ve effectively created a potato taproot more than three-feet long (1 meter) with tubers growing along the entire length.

Add more straw and compost as they grow

Keep the plants watered throughout the summer and during flowering. A few weeks after they flower they’ll turn yellow and begin to die back. Stop watering at this point and let the plants rest for a week or two.

Potato plants dying back

My favorite part of growing a potato tower comes at harvest. A couple weeks after the dieback, the ends of the metal fencing are released and the entire contents of the tower spill out. At this point it’s very easy to pluck the potatoes from the soil and loose compost and straw. Not a single tuber is pierced, sliced, or damaged in any way.

Peel back the straw to reveal the harvest

Another huge benefit of a potato tower is revealed at that point too. The compost and partially decomposed straw mix are perfect amendments for my garden soil. Turning it into the existing soil at that spot makes it suitable for new plants in the next year — just not more potatoes. An out-of the-way garden location has just been primed for more crops.

The tower can be constructed with many other materials. Some gardeners use old tires. Plant the seed potatoes and cover the spot with an auto tire. When the plant reaches the top of the tire, fill it with soil and stack a new tire on top. Continue stacking until the tower is four or five tires high. At harvest just remove the tires to reveal the tubers.

You can also make a planting square with cinder blocks. You follow the same basic procedure of adding soil and stacking a new level of cinder blocks. At harvest, just one wall of the tower needs to be removed to access the crop. If you have carpentry skills you can built a wooden box with removable slats for your tower.

Growing potatoes in your garden, particularly in a tower, gives you great flexibility with which varieties of potato you choose. However not all potatoes will grow new tubers along the entire taproot. Some varieties like Russet will provide a bountiful harvest. Red Pontiac and fingerling potatoes do well. Others like Yukon Gold will not. I prefer Yukon Gold on my dinner table so even though I use the tower method I don’t need to fill the tower more than a few feet tall because it won’t increase the quantity at harvest.

Typically, indeterminate potatoes should do best in a tower. I haven’t found a definitive authority or list identifying all of the varieties that will work so if you have a favorite potato try it in a tower and let me know your results.

A potato tower allows you to create a new planting bed without dedicating prime gardening real estate; you can save your raised beds and open rows for other crops. It gives you great flexibility in how many potatoes you grow and where you put them. After harvest the same tower can be used again the next year for a new crop, ideal garden recycling.

If you grow potatoes, consider a potato tower. You may never revert to the old system again.

How to Plant Fall Bulbs

Many of the most popular and most beautiful garden flowers grow from bulbs. Bulbs are grouped in two basic categories, fall bulbs and spring bulbs. The flowers they produce are generally spring flowers and fall flowers, respectively. Deciding when to plant is relatively easy: if it flowers in the spring, plant in fall; if it flowers in fall, plant in spring.

Daffodil and tulips

Crocus and tulips, the first colors of spring, come from fall-planted bulbs. These bulbs need to be exposed to long periods of cold temperatures to grow and flower properly. Planted in fall, they enjoy the winter cold in the frozen ground and burst to life when the warmth of spring raises the soil temperature. While not every spring flower from a bulb needs cold to bloom, it’s still a nice rule of thumb to follow. Plant spring flowers in the fall.

To support the flowers, the bulbs need to establish a root system. Planting in the fall allows the bulbs to develop the strong roots needed for quick spring growth. Plant bulbs when the soil begins to cool after the heat of summer. Roots will grow until the ground freezes so the earlier they’re planted, the more time they have to develop that system. Generally, this means at least six weeks before the first hard freeze. You want the soil to be warm enough to sustain root growth, but the conditions shouldn’t be so warm that foliage growth happens; that’s why we don’t call them “summer bulbs”.

If you delay and have bulbs in storage, having missed the perfect time to plant, it’s best to get them in the ground even late in fall or into winter. With time bulbs will dry out and when they do they lose the energy needed for plant growth. This year’s bulbs need to be planted this year. They may not develop a healthy root system before spring but at least they have a chance for survival.

Very warm regions, like Zones 8 and 9, can grow spring flowers from bulbs, but some of this timing needs to be modified. Most of the spring flowering bulbs, particularly hyacinth, crocus, and tulips, need cold saturation so the bulbs should be stored in the refrigerator for six to eight weeks before planting. The bulbs should be planted in early winter and treated as annuals; bulbs need to be re-planted each year. Either purchase new bulbs or dig up old bulbs and put in cold storage, but they need the cold temperatures to bloom again. Amaryllis, lilies, and daffodils don’t need the cold treatment.

The bulbs you choose should be large, firm, and show no signs of mold, fungus, or decay. Buying from reputable online sources or a local nursery or garden center where you can actually examine the bulb ahead of time is the best idea. Typically you get what you pay for. If you buy bargain bulbs from a discount online or mail nursery, you may get scrawny, dried out, damaged inventory; I know because it’s happened to me. Inexpensive bulbs in garden center bins can be fine, but examine them before you buy.

Tulip bulbs

While buying bulbs from the bulb capital of the world, Holland, seems appealing, be careful. Bulbs in the Netherlands are grown by the millions for export. The hybrids they’ve developed over the centuries are beautiful, but many have been selected for the big bulbs they produce to make importing them more appealing. Often the plants that result may not be best suited to your garden; they may not be able to sustain the energy needed to keep producing the beautiful flowers. It’s not unusual for foreign bulbs to produce plants that only survive one or two years.

Look to bulb producers that develop bulbs in a region similar to the one for your garden. Do a little research and select bulbs that are appropriate for your climate and plant growing zone. Don’t just focus on how pretty the flowers will be. The plant must survive your winter to bloom in spring.

When choosing a location for planting fall bulbs look for a sunny, well-drained area; bulbs don’t like wet feet. Be sure to look into the future. The sun needs to shine on the plants in the spring. Deciduous trees won’t have leaves in the spring and the sun’s position in the sky is different than fall, so areas that might be shaded in fall may be in full sun in spring, and vice versa.

Consider how you want to establish your bulb bed. Remember that fall bulbs bloom in spring and most of the flowers don’t last longer than a few weeks. For the entire summer and into the next fall, the area will be devoid of color as the foliage gradually begins to brown. Many gardeners prefer to intersperse other flowers in the same beds during that time. Whether annuals or perennials, having other plants in a bulb bed helps sustain continued color throughout the growing season.

If you’re developing a new bed it’s best to prepare the entire plot by amending the soil and adding a slow-release fertilizer to a large area all at once. The bulbs can be planted in the fall, grow and bloom in spring, and lay the framework for additional plants. At the appropriate time, other flowering plants can be placed among the bulbs.

If you’re adding bulbs to an established bed with other perennial plants already in place, you’ll need to plant one hole at a time. This is more time consuming, but follows the same basic idea of interspersing plants that flower at different times of the year.

With bulbs in hand, and the weather cooling, begin fall bulb planting. Generally speaking, use a “rule of three”. Plant bulbs about three times as deep as the height of the bulb and space them apart at least three times the width of the bulb. Some large daffodil bulbs may be almost three inches tall and thick (8 centimeters). Yes, they should be planted about eight inches deep (20 centimeters) with eight to nine-inch spacing. Keep this in mind when you buy mass-produced, bargain bulbs. The directions for planting tulips and daffodils were exactly the same for bulbs I bought at a garden center though the bulbs were markedly different in size.

You can use special bulb tools or the ones you have already. I have a bulb planter, a special cylindrical tool than is designed to twist in the soil and pull out a plug, producing a perfectly-shaped hole. If you want to buy one of these, look for one that has inch or centimeter markings so you know how deep you’re digging. I also have a trowel with depth markings. They both were a little more expensive than generic tools, but they come in very useful when I want to measure the hole depth for different bulbs.

My bulb planting tools

In a bed with other plants already in place, I lay out my bulbs ahead of time in the desired pattern on the surface. In a brand new bed you can dig a trench or large hole of the appropriate depth to place the bulbs in. Some gardeners like long, orderly rows of flowers. Others like clumps of flowers. Others like a totally random arrangement where the bulbs are tossed on the ground and planted where they land. I use all three methods and vary them depending on which bed I’m planting. Clumping or planting a lot of bulbs in one area is better than a few, single ones because the concentration of color can provide quite a visual impact.

Bulbs laid out for planting

Using the bulb tool or  a trowel, dig the hole, or prepare a trench. Place the bulb with the pointed end up. The flat end is wider and fatter and should be at the bottom of the hole.  With smaller bulbs it may be difficult to discern which is the base and which is the top; just put it in the hole and the plant will adjust when it grows.

Tulip bulb in the hole

If you weren’t able to amend the soil in the entire planting area, do it one hole at a time. Mix some compost and fertilizer with the soil at the base of the hole. While the bulb has all of the energy needed to produce a plant and flowers in the first year, slow-release fertilizer high in phosphorus (the second number on the box) helps with plant development in poor soil like mine. I use a triple phosphate fertilizer. If the soil has been amended and is rich with organic matter, fertilizer isn’t necessary. Avoid just adding the fertilizer directly to the hole because it can burn the developing roots.

After placing the bulb, cover it with amended soil and tamp down gently. You don’t want to compact the soil, just ensure it is completely covering the bulb. Especially after amending it you’ll have more soil than will fit in the hole with the bulb in it. That’s okay. You can mound it slightly because it will settle in time.

Covering the bulb with soil

That’s all there is to it. Dig a hole, place the bulb, cover with soil. As with most plants, adding mulch to the bed will help moderate soil temperature and avoid frost heave in the winter. Once in the ground, most fall bulbs have a long life ahead of them and you’ll have flowers every spring.

Be as creative as you want when it comes to planting fall bulbs. Generally, low plants are planted in front of high ones, but consider blending and mixing different bulbs in the same bed. When flowers bloom at different times they’ll provide an ever-changing spring portrait. Consider planting different bulbs in the same hole with smaller ones on top of large ones. When they grow and bloom the flowers will be mingled with each other for a distinctive look. Bulbs do well in pots too.

As easy as they are to plant and as beautiful as the flowers are, it’s hard to come up with an excuse for not planting fall bulbs.

How to Plant Garlic

Garlic is a plant that many gardeners are curious about growing, but too few do. Fans of garlic tout its medical benefits, its culinary virtuosity, and its pest control effectiveness. With so much going for it, I find it mildly shocking that I’m one of the few gardeners I know who actually grows it. It’s surprising because garlic is about as easy to grow as anything in your garden and provides such wonderful rewards.

There is nothing mysterious about planting garlic, but deciding on where you’ll plant is important. Garlic is in the ground for six to nine months so you’ll need a spot that is dedicated to it, where it won’t interfere with or be impacted by other plants. I’ve planted my garlic in its own four-feet by four feet (1.2 meters) raised bed. The location should be in full sun.

My chosen spot

Garlic will grow in a variety of soils, but it will do best in well-draining, well-amended soil. If you spend extra time preparing the bed you’ll be rewarded with large, healthy bulbs. Add two to four inches of compost or aged manure on the soil surface. Work it into the soil with a tiller, spade, or garden fork. You want it to be incorporated throughout the soil to a depth of at least six inches (15 centimeters) and deeper if you can.

Working in the compost

You can also add blood meal and bone meal to the soil to provide extra nitrogen and phosphorus. If you have pets that have access to the garden you may skip those amendments. Dogs and cats love to dig through soil with fresh, wet blood meal as they search for the source of a “fresh kill”. Alfalfa meal is a good alternative. A balanced fertilizer works well too.

Garlic tends to do best in most regions when planted in the fall. The cloves are able to develop basic roots before the ground freezes and are in place to grow quickly when spring warmth returns. Garlic needs exposure to cold temperatures to sprout in spring and being in the ground during the winter provides that. One old tradition is to plant garlic on the shortest day of the year, 21 December or 21 June depending on your hemisphere. That may work for some temperate regions where the soil can still be worked, but for those of us who have frozen ground in winter it’s a little too late.

For many gardeners, fall is the ideal time to plant. As long as they’re in the ground at least three weeks before the ground begins to freeze, the cloves will have time to begin their development. It’s okay if little green shoots poke through the soil during warm periods that will occur during winter. Garlic is very durable and can handle the cold.

In warm regions, planting garlic in early spring works well. The cloves will still need cold saturation so you’ll need to store them in a cool, dry spot for three to four weeks. The temperature needs to remain below 50F degrees (10C) the entire time. Refrigerators (which should be set below 40F and 4C degrees) are a good solution.

After you’ve selected which garlic you’ll grow (see my blog, “Choosing Garlic for the Garden“) and when you’ll plant, find a good source for the bulbs. Your local nursery should have a selection of the best varieties for your location, but shop early because garlic tends to sell fast to the gardeners who have already discovered its benefits.

You want to choose symmetrical and firm bulbs. Avoid bulbs that have mold or fungus on them. There should be no soft spots when you squeeze them. Though many of the bulbs will be fully encased in the papery skin, look for the outline of the cloves; they should be full, consistent, and plump. Pass on the bulbs that already have green shoots sprouting from the top.

Labeled so I don't forget

If you buy more than one variety, be sure to label the bulbs or bag them separately. Many of the cloves will look alike and you’ll want to know which ones you’ve planted. Marking the row in the garden and planting the appropriate cloves will give you feedback as to which ones grow best and taste best after harvest.

The bulbs will store for weeks after purchase so there’s no rush to get them in the ground. It’s a good idea to buy early and spend your time preparing the bed. When it is time to plant, separate the bulbs into the individual cloves. Don’t pull apart the cloves until shortly before planting time. If they dry out it impacts their root development.

When you’re ready, crack open the bulbs by gently prying off the outer cloves with your fingers, working your way to the center. With hardneck garlic, you have the center stalk exposed with the cloves growing around it; softneck garlic won’t have the little stalk. Each clove will be attached to the basal plate at the bottom of the bulb, where the roots are. Separate all of the cloves. Some may want to stay attached to the basal plate. Try to remove it, but don’t damage the clove in the process. It’s okay if some of the old root base is attached when you plant the individual cloves.

The stalk in hardneck garlic

While all of the cloves should grow into a garlic plant, you’ll have best results by planting the larger ones. You can eat the smaller cloves or use them in pickles as I do. A typical bulb from the most popular varieties should provide you eight or ten good cloves for planting. If you crack the bulbs in a location other than right at the planting bed, label the cloves with a permanent marker or bag them separately. Again, you’ll want to know which garlic is planted where.

Cloves ready for planting

Plant the cloves four to six inches apart (15 centimeters). Consider the ultimate size of the mature bulb when determining your spacing. Some garlic grows quite large so you’ll want to plant farther apart. Some bulbs will be smaller when full-grown and can be spaced closer together. In a bed like mine, there is enough room for more than 60 cloves to be planted, allowing space around the borders for the bulbs to grow.

Cloves laid out in the bed

I like to lay out all of the cloves I plan to plant on the surface of the bed. I can adjust the spacing as needed and it provides an “assembly line” process. I simply dig a hole with the trowel, place the clove, cover it with soil, and move on to the next. In the past when I planted without laying them all out, invariably I ended up planting two cloves in the same hole or got my rows out of alignment.

The cloves should be planted three to four inches deep (8 to10 centimeters).  Three inches is fine for most cloves, but plant large cloves deeper and also plant deeper in very loose soil that will settle and compact later. Place the clove in the hole pointy side up. The flat end that was attached to the basal plate is where the roots grow from and should be on the bottom. There should be about two inches (five centimeters) of soil from the top of the clove to the surface.

A clove in the hole

Cover the bed with about four to six inches of mulch (10 to 15 centimeters). I consider this a critical step. Mulch helps moderate the soil moisture, but more importantly moderates the soil temperature. In very cold regions the freezing and thawing of the soil during winter and early spring can heave the cloves out of the soil. This frost heave can tear roots and expose the cloves to damage. Mulch also helps reduce winter kill and reduces heat stress on hot summer days. Use thicker mulch in colder areas.

Spreading straw mulch

In wet regions, the thick mulch isn’t necessary and should probably be avoided. Mulch can keep waterlogged soil from drying out and that spells doom for the cloves that can rot when exposed to excess water. A thin layer to suppress weeds is appropriate.

Straw is a good mulch. It insulates well and allows the shoots no barrier to new growth. Dried leaves or a mix of dried leaves and dried grass is good and often in abundant supply in fall. I don’t recommend hay grass; as I’ve written before, it tends to be full of seeds that sprout and turn into a blanket of weeds. Use an organic mulch that you can turn into the soil to amend it after you harvest the garlic. Pine needles are a good initial mulch but won’t decompose as quickly when turned into the soil.

The finished project

Winter snow and spring rains will compress the mulch into a soft, thinner layer that effectively manages the soil through spring and summer. It will suppress weeds and help keep soil moisture and temperature under control. If a heavy layer was used in frigid winter zones, be prepared to remove some of it in spring. A final, spring layer two to three inches thick (5-8 centimeters) is all that is needed.

Water the garlic after planting and periodically through the winter. When the soil isn’t frozen it should remain moist but not waterlogged or soggy. As I’ve said before, check the soil moisture before watering. With the mulch you will probably need to water much less than you expect. Avoid letting the soil dry out; not enough moisture will result in a smaller bulb that hasn’t reached its full potential. Garlic won’t need a lot of water in the fall and watering too much can hasten excess green growth.

Basic care for garlic is similar to other garden plants. Garlic likes minerals with its nutrients so fertilize about once a month in spring and early summer with a weak fish emulsion unless you have pet and animal pests. Compost tea, worm tea, and manure tea can be good alternatives.

I’ll follow up in the months to come with more about garlic care, diseases, and, of course, harvesting. For now, get out there and get planting.