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Spring Arrangements in December

Hindsight's 20/20. I've never doubted the effort I put in to gardening once I see the result months or years later. But in the interim, yes, I'm filled with doubt. Some say that this is the excitement of gardening. Others say gardening is too expensive to allow for failure.

Then I realized... we're gardeners and we have a blog. We could try new ideas - even if they fail, we could still write about it and maybe keep someone else from failure.

Thus, for your reference and viewing pleasure, I give you our first gardening experiment...


Can bulbs (specifically Tulip and Daffodil) survive the extra exposure of being in an above-ground pot in an un-heated garage in Milan Michigan?!

Bulbs such as tulips and daffodils require periods of cold temperatures that create a biochemical process that allows them to flower. However, if the soil around the bulb freezes and freezes the roots that must grow before spring, then the bulb will die and rot before flowering.

We have two enemies here - too much water and too much cold. The combination will cause the deadly freezing. But we're walking a tightrope here. We need some water for the bulbs to establish roots and some cold. We also need to make sure that the pots do not experience wide temperature fluctuations and send up growth too early.

Add a third variable to the equation - I should have done this earlier than December (but I was busy enjoying time in clients' gardens). However, if I store them properly and ensure the bulbs have relative warmth for a month, they'll have plenty of time to get ready for spring.

Here's what I did ...


Plan the layout

Practicality isn't the only concern here. If it grows, it's got to look striking.

I found some simple terra cotta pots that had been sitting at a nursery for more than a year. The older pots had lost their garish sheen. I don't want anything to distract from the flowering plants. This is also why I chose terra cotta - simplicity. Moss was an added bonus, and I made sure that the nurseryman and I did not remove any as we loaded them onto the back of the van.

It's important to plan your layout before installing the soil and bulbs into each pot. This makes it easier to arrange bulbs by height and bloom time. Some tulips will remain green while most daffodils are blooming. That's fine by me as long as we don't have an overabundance of green per grouping.

In spring, I will use these old paver blocks to step up the height of some of the planters. These will also help with drainage. (click on photos for descriptions)


Collect soil ingredients

Good soil is the key to any gardening project. This is especially the case with bulbs. All will depend on this mixture being right.

Straight up potting soil is still too heavy for bulbs. We need lighter soil with better drainage and to prevent freezing. I collected perlite and sand to add to the potting soil, and mixed them in. I also like the idea of adding a small amount of soil from my existing garden to help give the microbial processes a boost. Mix thoroughly. I mix soil the same way I cook - by feel. When in doubt, add more butter.

I also collected ingredients to make the bottom of the pot very loose and drainable (and because I don't need the full depth of most of the pots). I used old coconut lining to block soil from falling out of the hole. It will also help with moisture control. Pea gravel will help with drainage, and leaf mold will give a very loose texture to start the soil layer above that (you'll see the order of layering shown in the next step).


Put drainage layer(s) in bottom of the pots

Next, I prepped the bottom of each pot with 1) Coconut lining, 2) Pea Gravel, 3) Leaf mold.

If you thought gardening and its practitioners were calm, gentle folk, then read any message board thread on the topic of what material to put on the bottom of your pots! It's a warzone. I say try different ideas and see what works.

I try to overcome water's surface tension and the soil's holding capacity by laying materials that are more soil-like as you get closer to the soil. You can just fill your pots with old broken pots like most normal folks, but I'm experimenting here!


More layer cake - Soil, Fertilizer, Bulbs, More Soil.

Then, I got to planting. The layering went as follows=

4)Soil mix, 5)Fertilizer mixed into soil, 6)Bulbs, 7)Soil

I dumped a generous portion of my soil mix into the pot on top of the leaf mold and mixed a small handful of bulb-starter fertilizer into the top layer of the soil so that fertilizer is immediately available to roots when they start growing.

Firm the soil and then water it. Only just get the soil moist. Do not compact the soil too much. Next was the fun part -

Arranging - I spent some time deciding which pot would perform best with each variety of bulb. I kept it simple with only one type of bulb per pot (inspiration taken from plantsman Claus Dalby's personal gardens I think this is the way to go if you are grouping more than one pot together, otherwise it looks too busy. It is possible to layer different types of bulbs and perennials according to bloom time in the same pot. Personally, I'd had enough layering by now and kept it strait forward.


Storage wars

Space is limited in our barn, but I needed the best location for these bulbs. One day soon, we'll have space to make this into more of an operation.

A cold cellar or a garage wall next to a heated part of your house would be perfect. This location is slightly sunken underground in an insulated but unheated barn. I also ensured that the sun would never be allowed to hit this spot, even when the large barn door is open. If you try your hand at the project, make sure your pots are not exposed to the sun.

To simulate the protection that a normal garden planting would give, I wrapped the pots twice in felt weed cloth. You can find this material at Fendt in Ann Arbor by the foot.

So I have four layers of protection - insulated building, felt, terra cotta, and soil. I'm still a bit worried, but we'll see in the spring. Stay tuned!

More watering

The last step continues throughout the winter - making sure these pots don't completely dry out. Once a week, on a warm day (hopefully) I will unwrap my blanket and sprinkle each pot sparingly.

I'm going to see if I can turn on comments here. What do you think? Do you have a story of debunking a gardening myth in your garden through your own experimentation?

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