By Larry Hodgson
Usually, there’s no particular rush to plant fall bulbs (tulips, narcissus, hyacinths, spring crocus, etc.). They arrive in garden centers in early September, but you really don’t have to plant them until 6 weeks or so before the ground starts to freeze. If you count backwards, that isn’t until mid to late October in most temperate Northern Hemisphere, even November in the mildest areas. Many people therefore wait until their annuals finish blooming and their perennials have died back, then plant them in the spaces freed up when those are cleaned up … and many annuals and perennials are still in perfect shape through September and well into October.
There are, however, a few bulbs that are exceptions to the rule, bulbs that need to be planted early in the season. In fact, as soon as possible after they arrive in local stores.
Here are four main ones:
Grecian Windflower (Anemone blanda, now Anemonoides blanda)
This early blooming bulb with surprisingly large star-shaped blooms in white, pink, blue or purple doesn’t take well to drying out. The small black tuber is sold dry and already starting too shrivel, looking for all the world like a dried cat turd. By the time it arrives in the store, the clock is ticking: it’s already slowly losing its capacity to sprout. If you leave it too long, nothing will come up next spring.
(If you can’t plant it right away, at least keep it cool, as in a cold room or even a fridge. That way you can push the planting season into October.)
Therefore, plant this bulb when it arrives in stores or shortly thereafter.
Before you plant it, soak it overnight in tepid water to plump it up. Place it in well-drained soil in a spot that will receive sun or part shade in the spring. Plant it about 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) deep and likewise space the bulbs about 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) apart. With this lumpy bulb, there is essentially no way of telling which side is up, so don’t worry about it. Just drop in the hole and cover with soil, then water to settle it in.
It’s adapted to USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8, AgCanada zones 4 to 8.
Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis and E. cilicica)
This extremely early bloomer with brilliant buttercup-yellow flowers on a tiny plant is related to the Grecian windflower (they’re both in the buttercup family, the Ranunculaceae) and shares a similar small shriveled brown tuber. And it also shares similar needs, including the same hardiness zones: USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCanada zones 4 to 8).
Be forewarned: this bulb is even more sensitive to drying out fatally than the Grecian windflower. The sooner you plant it, the better.
Just give it exactly the same treatment you offered to the Grecian windflower, including a good soaking before planting it … early, of course!
Meadow Saffron (Colchicum spp.)
Sometimes called autumn crocus (not a name I recommend, at its leads to confusion with the true autumn crocus, described below) or naked ladies, so called because it blooms without any leaves (they pop up separately, in the spring), this often giant cup-shaped flower rises straight out of the ground in early to mid-fall on short stems.
With this plant, the urgency in planting is not so much the deterioration of the corm, although the big bulblike organ does shrivel quite quickly if you don’t plant it soon, but rather that it blooms in the fall. Yes, unlike most other bulbs that you plant in the fall for bloom the following spring (tulips, narcissus, hyacinths, etc.), it blooms … like, right away! So, if you want to see it bloom in the ground where it should be, plant it as soon as you bring it home. Otherwise, it will bloom in its storage bag or box … and I kid you not!
Often, the bulb you buy already has a flower bud or two stretching out of it at planting time: that shows just how much of a hurry it is in to bloom!
Don’t eat any part of a meadow saffron: it’s highly poisonous.
Plant this corm (they vary greatly in size: some varieties are fist-sized!) at a depth of about 2 to 3 times its height and a similar spacing, again in well-drained soil in a site that receives spring sun or partial shade. Although there are many varieties of meadow saffron and the bloom season does vary, some will be in bloom within a week after planting. Yes, that fast!
USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCanada zones 4 to 8).
Autumn Crocus (Crocus speciosus, C. sativus, C. kotschyanus and others)
These really are crocuses, but unlike the usual late winter or spring flowering crocuses, they bloom in the fall. And, obviously, you’re going to want to plant them early so you can enjoy their bloom.
The corm does hold well and doen’t seem to shrink to any degree if you don’t get it into the ground right away, but don’t let that fool you. If you leave things too long, it will simply fail to flower that year. So, plant it soon after it arrives in the store.
Plant the small corms about 3 inches (7 cm) deep and 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) apart, again in well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade. The hardiness of the various species varies, but many adapt to USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCanada zones 4 to 8).
So, what are you waiting for? These bulbs are in a hurry: get planting!