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Soil testing: It’s a great time to do soil testing now for the vegetable garden as well as perennial and annual beds, turf areas, and areas where you grow fruit. Fall is less busy at the lab than spring, so it’s a good time to send a sample in. Also, a test will tell you if you need to add compost this fall for next spring’s vegetable garden. Samples should be mailed to the UW Soils Lab in Marshfield, along with a form that tells the lab what type of plants you are growing so they can customize their recommendations for the needs of those plants. Go to http://uwlab.soils.wisc.edu/ for the form, information on how to collect samples and the address to send samples for analysis. You can also call your local Extension office for a printed copy of the form and a soil test bag if you don’t have internet access.

Soil testing is important for new gardens, so you have baseline information for fertilizer application as well as for beds that haven’t been tested for a while. The University of Wisconsin Soils Lab’s standard soil test costs $15 and the report includes information on your soil pH, (this is a measure of the acidity and alkalinity of your soil) percent organic matter, phosphorus and potassium levels and also includes a lime or sulfur recommendation, fertilizer recommendations and other environmental tips.

Hardy bulbs: You can start planting spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils, tulips, crocus, hyacinth and ornamental onions now, and continue planting up till a couple weeks before the ground freezes. If you plant hyacinth bulbs, use gloves, as some people develop dermatitis after handling the bulbs.

Bulbs look more natural when planted in clumps rather than stiff rows — and it means you have to dig fewer holes, so put 5-8 in a hole together.

Most of the hardy spring-flowering bulbs evolved in desert or Mediterranean climates. Many are native to Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, for instance. Tulips, especially hybrids, are not well-adapted to our wet, heavy clay soils. This means they often don’t last more than a few years in our yards, especially if we plant annuals that need a lot of water on top of or right next to them. They appreciate moisture while blooming, but prefer a hot, dry summer afterwards when they go dormant. These bulbs need good drainage, so plant them where the soil is suitable.

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Planting "species’" tulips, the shorter types with smaller flowers, may work better for you as they tend to return for more years. Species tulips include named varieties of Tulipa clusiana, Tulipa tarda, Tulipa griegii and Tulipa kaufmanni among others.

The general rule for planting spring bulbs is to plant two to three times as deep as the bulbs is tall. So, most large bulbs like tulips or daffodils will be planted about 8 inches deep while smaller bulbs will be planted 3-4 inches deep. Measure the planting depth from the bottom (not the top) of the bulb. Ideally, water in the bulbs after planting, especially if it is dry. Daffodils tend to last much longer in our climate and soils than tulips.

If you have issues with chipmunks or squirrels digging up bulbs, planting more daffodils or hyacinth, which are poisonous to them (as opposed to tulips or crocus), can be helpful as they will be less motivated to dig up these bulbs.

Another strategy is to put a couple inches of "chicken grit" that you can buy in farm and feed stores just under the mulch (or if you don’t use mulch, about half an inch under the top of the soil) that is over the bulbs. Squirrels and chipmunks don’t like digging in this material and it may discourage them but won’t interfere with the bulbs coming up in spring.

Lisa Johnson, Dane County UW-Extension horticulture educator

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