As we look toward what will certainly be an atypical winter, I have been thinking about what I might plant this fall if I had small children at home. By the time February arrives, I suspect we will all be looking for any excuse to get out of the house on a sunny day. It is around that time that Southerners begin to look for any sign of spring, however small. Planting a few bulbs now is a great family project, and the anticipation of watching each type of bulb emerge from its winter sleep will give your little ones something simple to look forward to after the holidays have passed. If there are bulbs coming up in my garden, I’m out there checking on them every day or so, and your kids will be too.
Flowering bulbs are colorful and smell lovely, but they’re also a great opportunity to teach your kids about botany. Young ones can learn about roots and flowers, and school age children can learn about the growth cycle of plants and photosynthesis. Rulers measure daily plant growth, and a simple magnifying glass becomes a great tool for learning about stamens and pistils.
If I were young, I would like nothing more than to see a crazy quilt of crocuses popping up at the edge of the lawn in late winter. Beyond the crocus, which is easy for tiny hands to plant, here are a few other types of easy-to-find bulbs to try: daffodils (narcissus), sweetly-scented hyacinths, muscari (blue grape hyacinths), snowdrops (galanthus), or summer snowflakes (leucojum). If you live in the South, I would pass on the tulips, though the colors are enticing.
Tulips require a period of pre-chilling in the South, and while you can order these bulbs pre-chilled from some vendors, I prefer to spend my money on daffodils, which have blooms that last a bit longer than tulips in our mild climate. Also, daffodils will return year after year in the South, but tulips are a one-time show here, as they need a long period of cold weather to be perennial.
I spent years designing fancy winter garden spaces, some with hundreds and hundreds of tulips, carefully planted by landscaping crews between pansies or violas. They are great fun, however, it seems that here in Georgia, tulips come up, they are stunning, and just when you’ve fallen in love with the whole display, the weatherman begins to forecast unseasonably warm weather or wind gusts, and there go the 900 tulips. Daffodil blooms arrive earlier in the year, typically in February or early March in the South, and if I’m going to spend money on bulbs, I’ll go for daffs over tulips every time.
Planning a trip to an outdoor garden center to see what bulbs are available might make sense for you, but if you don’t want to take the risk of shopping in person due to covid, you can order bulbs on the web from a specialty company such as Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. Here in the South, you can plant them as soon as the weather cools down, but I would get them in the ground by Christmas so they’ll have a chance to root in well. If you want to store them for a few weeks, you can put them in your refrigerator as long as you keep them away from fruit, which gives off a gas that will make bulbs spoil. If you leave them sitting around in your garage for a few months, they will likely dry out and may not bloom.
Should you decide to make that trip to the outdoor garden center in your mask, grab a few other things to keep the kids engaged this fall. Lacinato kale, often called dinosaur kale because of the texture of its glaucous leaves, is a nice addition to the winter garden. Violas in a rainbow of colors are fun to use for tiny flower arrangements, smell lovely, and can even be added to salads (or used as edible cupcake decorations). The kale is frost-proof and will survive in your garden all winter unless you harvest it for dinner. The violas will shake off frost and even snow, and if deadheaded (a good chore for small fingers), they’ll bloom well all winter if you give them a little liquid feed when they need a boost.
Here’s hoping we’ll all stay safe and snug all winter long, and spring will greet us warmly, with a sprinkling of flowers to usher in what I pray will be a better year for all of us.