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Published August 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

DARREL KOEHLER: Bulb planting time

With summer soon but a memory as crickets chirp, days lengthen and temperatures drop, it’s time to think about planting. While most gardeners think of spring as the time to do major planting in their yards, we can do more in autumn and get a jump on 2010.

By: Darrel Koehler, Grand Forks Herald

With summer soon but a memory as crickets chirp, days lengthen and temperatures drop, it’s time to think about planting. While most gardeners think of spring as the time to do major planting in their yards, we can do more in autumn and get a jump on 2010.

Typically, temperatures take a sharp drop and rains are more frequent once we move past Labor Day. This spring and summer have been a disappointment for many gardeners, but there’s always another year. So, let’s move on.

Autumn is often associated with spring bulb planting. Typically, most of us plant tulips and other bulbs in late September or early October. The key is to plant them early enough to receive adequate moisture to develop plenty of roots before the soil freezes.

Daffodils can be planted a bit earlier. Timing is the key to a successful bulb bed. In general, the longer you wait, the more risk factors come into play. Sometimes, gardeners receive mail-order bulbs later than they should so they end up planting them in late October or early November when the ground is frozen. This practice is usually successful, but if we have a severe winter, the bulbs may not make it. In extreme cases, these late bulbs may have to be used for forcing. You have to plant fall bulbs in autumn or winter, you can’t hold them over until spring.

Perennials, shrubs and trees

Perennials also can be planted this time of year. A general rule is to plant late-flowering perennials in spring and early–flowering perennials in fall. You can plant container-grown perennials anytime. Many of these perennials are being offered on clearance, so even if there is a bit of green, it’s worth the risk. Allow at least three to four weeks of decent growing conditions so they can become established before winter.

You also can divide perennials, including irises, daylilies, peonies and hostas, and replant right away. The key to success with either bulbs or perennials is to first prepare the beds. Then mulch around planted or replanted perennials and water them regularly if rainfall is sparse. Both bulb and newly planted perennial beds should be mulched once the soil freezes in early November. Between 4 to 6 inches of straw or compost or 10 to 12 inches of fallen leaves will offer protection.

Autumn is an excellent time to plant most trees and shrubs. It’s especially a good time to plant conifers or evergreens, which sometimes suffer from heat and drought if planted in summer. Try to have conifers planted by early October. Conifers should be mulched with 3 inches of wood chips or bark. This should be applied in a circle covering the root area, leaving a gap around the trunk. Water newly planted conifers regularly until the ground freezes. If you plant late, mulch well as this will slow the soil from freezing and allow more root development.

Fruit trees are best planted in spring. This includes apples, crabapples, sour cherries, plums, raspberries and blueberries. However, if you hit on a good deal, go for it. It may be worth the risk. Another tip: hold off planting shrubs until spring, too.

Painting wounds

When we see a wound on a tree our first response often is to cover it. While years ago, it was recommended to use paints and sealants on tree wounds, research has shown that such treatments have no long-term value. In fact, such practices may slow the trees’ own ability to seal over the wounds. Pruning, when properly performed, requires no dressing. Late winter or early spring is the ideal time to do most heavy duty pruning.

Wax plants

A common complaint concerning wax or hoya houseplants is they never bloom. The Prairie Gardener obtained a wax plant from a Portland, N.D., gardener years ago, and had similar problems. The best way to get these reluctant bloomers to flower is to treat them like the sun-loving succulents they are. Keep them in a bright, sunny window and allow the soil to dry out before watering. Fertilize at half the recommended strength every three or four weeks in spring and summer and whatever you do, don’t prune back any stems including the naked ones without leaves. Eventually, it will bloom.

Edible fruit

A frequent question is if high-bush cranberries and mountain ash fruit are edible. The answer to both questions is “yes.” The high-bush cranberry is not a true cranberry, but is officially known as Viburnum trilobum. This large native shrub is found in swampy areas of northern Minnesota and elsewhere. The clusters of fruit ripen about Labor Day and are used to make jelly. Each contains a large seed. They give off an unpleasant aroma when cooking, but contain natural pectin and will gel without adding more. The fruit stays on the trees during winter and becomes sweeter when frozen. Deer hunters sometimes munch on the fruit if they come across a bush.

Mountain ash fruit is often mixed with tart apples resulting in a strong-flavored jelly that goes well with venison or other wild game. Mountain ash fruit is a favorite in the Nordic and Baltic countries. Both wild fruits are avidly sought after by wild birds during our long winter.

Hedge balls

Each autumn we see a display of strange greenish fruits in the produce section at area stores. They are referred to as hedge balls. They aren’t edible, but they are said to keep fruit flies, ants and spiders out of our homes. These are the fruit of Osage orange trees found in the Southern Great Plains, especially Kansas. The early settlers planted these shrub-like trees as living fences to keep in livestock and mark property lines. While entomologist say there is no scientific proof that hedge balls work, many people believe in them and claim they keep spiders out of the basement. Don’t come in contact with the milky sap they contain or eat them.

Great gardens

If you headed to the lakes or coming back on U.S. Highway 2, stop at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, and take in the beautiful gardens surrounding the center mall. The entrance featuring “UMC” in flowers is always a difficult accomplishment as the school’s colors are maroon and gold. Some years the plantings work, while they can be less successful other years. Finding maroon and gold plant materials is limiting. This year, the flowers are especially beautiful and well worth a drive through campus.

Plant sale

The third annual fall plant sale, sponsored by the Grand Forks Horticulture Society, will be Sept. 5-6 at Home of Economy in Grand Forks. This is a perfect time to pick up some perennials for any of those holes in your garden. Berry and similar plants also may be available.

Koehler is the Herald’s garden columnist. His column is published every Sunday in this section during the growing season. Send garden questions to him in care of the Grand Forks Herald, Box 6008, Grand Forks ND 58206-6008. Tune in the weekly gardening show airing at 4:10 p.m. Thursdays on KNOX 1310 (A.M.).