The Collected Seed
Spring Bulbs and Fall Seeds
Images from Holland Bulb Farm
As you may know, I work full-time and in my peak seasons, 8-5 is more like 8-???. October is one of those seasons. Things have finally slowed down and I've caught my breath but in the midst of the madness, it's an understatement to say that stress stifles creativity! I was absolutely stumped and couldn't come up with topic ideas. Thankfully, Instagram friends were willing to help me spark the creative juices with their suggestions to write about spring bulbs. While When dealing with flowers, I typically don't write a lot about non-natvie species, but it was a reminder that it's time to discuss fall sowing of native seeds.
Fond memories of tulips
Before I start talking about how confusing the term Spring Bulbs could be, I want to talk about Mrs. Brown, my grandmother's neighbor.
While I don't grow tulips (more on that in a second), Mrs. Brown did. They lived next door to my grandparents in Bartlesville, OK - the town that Frank Phillips, of Phillips 66 fame, put on the map. The Browns were like grandparents to my mom and her sisters as she grew up, so they were like great-grandparents by the time I came around.
If you trust my childhood memory, Mrs. Brown (Mr. Brown was gone by the time I came around) grew acres upon acres of tulips. I've driven through the alley to peak at the yard and it's slightly larger than a postage stamp. But I remember the fields of tulips as inaccurate as my childhood memories might be.
My grandparents had a great relationship with the Browns, having lived side-by-side for decades. That meant that anytime we visited when the tulips where in season, we got to visit Mrs. Brown and pick a tulip - just one - of our very own. My grandmother always had us put it in a vase under a lamp so we could watch how it responded to light. I can still picture that tulip sitting in a cup, on my grandparent's mid-century modern coffee table under a lamp with classic 70's drum shade.
Until the day I leave this earth, I'll remember Mrs. Brown any time I see tulips.
In gardening there are a lot of names that seem to be oxymorons, spring bulbs and winter squash are a couple that quickly come to mind. They seem to contradict themselves because they're not named by their planting time but by something else entirely. Spring bulbs bloom in the spring and winter squash have a long shelf life so they're eaten in the winter. That's where their names come from - nothing as simple as when to plant them, of course.
While they bloom in the spring, so called "spring bulbs" are actually planted in the fall. That means that in many of our Zones, it's now the right time to plant things like tulips, daffodils and crocuses (or is it croci?).
This is confused even further by the fact that you probably can't find many sources locally for these types of bulbs at this time of year. They will most definitely show up in big box stores in the spring because that is when people are asking for them.
If you're looking, start with your local nurseries. They may have bulbs and are a great source if they do because they'll stock varieties that have proven themselves in the local weather. No garden center wants a reputation for selling crummy products so when customers complain, they listen and this is the natural selection of the bulb inventory.
If you can't find a local source for the bulbs you desire, I've had good luck with Holland Bulb Farm. They're in no way affiliated with this post. I've had a good experience with their product and am confident in recommending them.
I mentioned earlier in the section about Mrs. Brown's tulips that I don't grow tulips myself. I'm allergic to onions and aloe vera of all things. Tulips are related and the sap in the stems likely has very similar properties so I choose not to test my luck.
I do love daffodils though and grow a couple varieties. One is a double flowering variety my daughter picked out at the big box store when she was younger. Anyone in a windy location - ie: everywhere in Oklahoma - should avoid these. The heads are so heavy that the stems bend and kink if you breathe on them too hard. The other variety I grow is a family heirloom that dates back to my great-great-grandmother's farm - and likely further back than that - which I retrieved from my grandmother's backyard.
Regardless of what type of spring bulb you're planting, get them in the ground soon. If you grow garlic, you likely understand that they need the cold period to produce well and flowering spring bulbs react the same way. They need the cold.
If you're familiar with a seed-starting term called "stratification" you understand that exposure to cold and wet is necessary to break the seed coat on some plants before they'll sprout. This can take up a stupid amount of fridge space if you're now a family still making do with a fridge that was fine when you were single. (Not that I'm bitter.)
There are a couple ways around it and one is winter sowing, which I've abandoned after having bad luck with the process. The other is to sow seeds directly in the garden in the fall. You can do this with any seeds that are noted to require a stratification period.
For anyone used to growing annuals or vegetables from seed this can bend the mind because it's easy to fall into a spiral of, "what if the weather tricks them into sprouting too soon."
That's the thing about Mother Nature - she's smarter than we are. Stratification takes a long time causing you to be more likely to suffer from seeds not sprouting than seeds sprouting too soon.
In fact, in an era of unpredictable weather, it can sometimes take several seasons before the stratification needs of seeds are met. That means gardeners need to be flexible and also stern. If more of a plant than you want sprouts next spring, the gardener must be ruthless in thinning. I have trouble with this one. It wants to grow so I want to let it and feel cruel culling it, but it's necessary.
Birds and other small animals can be amazing scavengers when food is scarce, so it's a good idea to protect fall-sown seeds. Be careful not to inadvertently insulate them though. A thick layer of mulch will reduce the likelihood that a bird will get the seeds but it reduces the likelihood that enough cold will reach them either.
A great way to get around this is to spread hardware cloth or chicken wire over the ground with a little air space between the wire and the ground. This is typically the easiest way to disguise if you have to keep the HOA off your back like I do. Another option would be to shield the area with branches if you have a lot of those lingering.
Did you find these tips helpful? Do you have a tip of your own? Please share!
Author's note: Because I was busy longer than expected, I am late making this post and in many parts of the country it's too late to plant spring-blooming bulbs. However, the unpredictability of Oklahoma weather will work in my favor here. It will be consistently inconsistent meaning there will be plenty of warm, fall-like stretches that will give the bulbs the opportunity to set themselves up for spring.