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Garden Update-Early freeze forces creative bulb planting strategy

Post by Marian Keith, Landscape Supervisor

The spring bulb display at Oliver Winery this 2011 promises to be spectacular, with 44 tulip varieties and several new types of narcissus, muscari, allium and frittilaria, comprising a total of 4450 bulbs. Typically, we are still wrapping up our planting through the first couple weeks of December. But winter arrived uncharacteristically early following Thanksgiving, with snow and continuous sub-freezing temperatures cutting our plans short. We were also a little more behind than usual due to all the extra time spent watering during the long fall drought. Regardless, my assistant Ralph and I were on a nice roll of speed planting by the middle of November, and had half the bulbs in the ground before the Arctic Blast hit. By early December, the ground was covered with snow and frozen solid as a rock. Extended forecasts showed no signs of thawing in the near future. What to do?

Potted bulbs rest beneath a blanket of mulch and black plastic.

We finally resorted to planting the rest of the bulbs in plastic nursery pots, 5-6 to a container. They were then watered, stacked on pallets and allowed to sit in our cool but above-freezing Service Building for two weeks in order to begin forming roots, which they did beautifully. Following this, the pallets were moved outdoors and placed against the thick, east-facing retaining wall where our mulch is usually kept. They were then covered with black plastic sheeting and surrounded with a thick wall of mulch. This should give the bulbs sufficient protection from excessive moisture and temperature fluctuations while also allowing them the cold period they require in order to bloom in the spring. If all goes well, they will be transplanted to their designated beds when the ground thaws in March. In the future, pains will be taken to make sure everything is planted by the end of November!

Tulips 'Orca', 'Spring Green' and 'Banja Luka' in spring of 2005

On a smaller scale, we have had success in the past using a modified version of the above technique, heeling pots of bulbs into the ground against the east side of a building where the overhanging eaves afford protection against excessive moisture. These have been used to fill the colorful planter barrels that decorate the exterior of the Tasting Room in spring. It has not worked for us to simply plant the bulbs in the barrels in fall and leave them exposed to the weather, as it tends to result in rotting and poor flowering.

A pot of brilliant 'Banja Luka' tulips

Our many glazed, ceramic pots are planted up in fall, watered lightly, and placed in an unheated storage shed for the winter. Again, this gives them the cold they need while protecting from extremes that can cause cracked pots and bulb failure. When taken out, watered and placed in a sunny location in March, the potted bulbs take off wonderfully. This method was suggested to me by our own Tasting Room staff member, Julie J, who puts her own potted bulbs in an unheated garage to overwinter. Thanks, Julie!

Tulips 'Juan' and 'Professor Rontgen' brighten spring containers

Prime flowering time for spring bulbs should peak in early through mid-April. Please make sure to stop by, sip a glass of wine and enjoy the fruits of our labors!

Narcissus 'Quail' and tulip 'Black Parrot' shine in early May

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joe Atkinson #

    Question for Marian:
    During an autumn tour of Virginia wineries, we visited Monticello and spent a fair amount of time in their famous gardens. I will be adding a couple of heirloom items that looked (and tasted!) great to my garden this year, but one that I liked I have been unable to find, even at vendors like Seed Savers Exchange: it was labeled “Butterfly Pole Pea” and was still producing a ton of pods in the fall.
    Any information you can provide would be appreciated.
    Thanks–
    Joe Atkinson (hubby of Susan from Tasting Room staff)

    January 20, 2011

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