, Salem, MA

September 28, 2012

Have bulbs to plant? Don't just yet

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: I bought a few tulips and crocus bulbs last summer on an advance order, and they said they would be shipped just in time for planting. Does that mean I can plant them now?


I’m afraid not. You’ll have a window of opportunity in the coming weeks, and, as usual, it all depends of the weather. Wait until night air temperatures are regularly in the 40- to 50-degree range — then the soil will be about 50 degrees, which is perfect for bulbs. If soil is wet, it could cool down a few days sooner — wet earth is colder than dry earth.

Your bulbs need to develop good roots this fall before the ground freezes — but the ground has to be cold enough to put them to sleep, not warm them up, which could stimulate too much top growth and even cause them to bloom this fall. For now, store any bulbs in the coolest and darkest place in the house or cellar, and wait a few weeks. In the meantime, plan your planting. If bulbs are sprouting, move them into the refrigerator and carefully plant them as soon as ground temperatures make it possible. Once the lower temps are met, your ideal planting time will last no more than eight weeks after the first frost. If your bulbs are late in arriving, you can plant until the ground freezes. My latest bulb planting was done on a Thanksgiving weekend in a sleet storm and wearing mittens — I remember it was cold and not a pleasant job to do!

If you look to Mother Nature for your planting signs, then plant bulbs when the fall leaves have just passed their peak.

TIP: Invest in a bulb augur for your electric drill — it’s a large drill bit used to easily drill holes for bulbs and other mass plantings. You’ll be amazed when you see how fast a mass planting of bulbs in the fall or small annuals next spring can be. It’s particularly good for use in cold, sandy, root-filled and rocky soil. This is a tool you might share with a neighbor.

Q: My husband planted three packages of sunflower seeds, and nothing came up. Someone said to add coffee grounds to the soil, but it was too late — is there any truth to that suggestion? Can you advise us as to what the problem may be?


I don’t think it was the fault of the three packages of seed, as long as they were used within the date on package. Sunflowers grow anywhere, even in the poorest clay soil. The summer had a very cool start — were the seeds planted too early? Early June is about right — depending on the weather — after the soil has warmed up. If you start seeds indoors, don’t start them too early as they won’t transplant successfully — four to six weeks before planting outside is enough of a head start. Grow sunflowers in all-day sun for best results, and with some shelter, such as against a building or fence for wind protection.

The addition of coffee grounds, if used in any great quantity, might make the soil so loose (think of what might happen if you added too much sand to soil) that a tall sunflower would have trouble standing upright in even a light wind unless staked. In addition, coffee grounds might acidify the soil, which a sunflower doesn’t need.

Please ask your husband to try again next year. It’s such fun to watch the “Jack and the Beanstalk”-type of daily growth — and to try to outwit the birds for the tasty seeds in the fall.

Q: We have many opened and unopened packages of seeds left over and need your advice on the best way to store them over the winter. Cool and dark, I know, but do you seal the packages in plastic or just throw the packages in a paper bag?


Store them in the original envelopes. Seal any open envelopes with tape or just fold them down tightly. Put the packets in a covered box (not a plastic box that you can see through, but a lightproof box) with a cover, and store the whole thing in a dark closet where it is relatively cool but not freezing — they will do well stored in a cool, dry, dark basement or cool, dry porch. Some gardeners like to put a little rice in the box to absorb moisture.

Seed viability may be slightly less next spring, so test the seed in the spring and plant accordingly. Most flower and vegetable seeds will remain viable for at least a second year, some even much longer. Next spring, consider donating any extra seeds or plants to one of the community gardens or food banks — they won’t go to waste.

Q: I have English ivy that I brought indoors from an outdoor pot several years ago. It has a place of honor on the living room windowsill, where it looks like it’s going to take over the entire room. It is pot-bound — roots are sticking out of the hole in the bottom of the pot — but there is always new growth on it. I go over it every month or so to clip off dead leaves and stringy things that don’t have any leaves on them, but outside of that, I leave it alone. Should I do anything else for it? How often should I feed it? It seems happy, so given that I once killed a philodendron, I really do not want to kill this one.


Your English ivy sounds very happy — you are doing all the right things, especially by keeping it so clean! But it is time to repot it. Choose a pot with good drainage, just one size larger in diameter than your current pot. Slightly loosen the soil around the tight root ball and repot, using a commercially bagged houseplant soil. Use a bought soil instead of garden soil so you don’t introduce some strange new bugs and pathogens to the plant.

Cut any of the long strands of ivy whenever you need to and root them in water or in soil. In about a month, the cutting will have formed enough roots to need a pot of its own — all of your friends can have a house-eating ivy!

Bathe the plant to keep it clean and dust-free, and fertilize with an all-purpose houseplant fertilizer monthly, except in midsummer and midwinter.

This week’s dirt

Has the end of summer and the planting season got you down? Don’t feel sad — now it’s the beginning of the planning season. Gardeners have a wonderful opportunity: If something doesn’t work this year, not to worry! You will get a “do-over” next spring and every year after. And you still have plenty of time to buy/order a few more spring bulbs ... and rake leaves.


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at