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There’s no reason to get squirrelly over planting a garden in winter

December, 2010

Procrastinators, take heart! If you think you’ve missed the window for getting your bulbs in, think again. The late start might just work in your favour.

December and early January can be a busy time for the winter gardener.

A friend was fuming about the badlands under her Norway maple. These gracious granddaddies of Montreal’s urban canopy are known for their dense shade and aggressive roots. They tend to suck the life out of most other plants, leaving a dry, barren sponge beneath.

I recommended Epimedium with an under-planting of bulbs. Also known as barrenwort, Epimedium defies strangulation in the most hostile of conditions. It may look dainty and delicate, but it is the go-to plant for tough tree roots. Other stalwarts: bluebells and species tulips followed by muscari and daffodils.

“Bulbs? On this street? You’ve got to be kidding! They’ll last a minute.”

The grey squirrels of southern Quebec are the progenitors of my friend’s scorn. They are hardly the wee timorous beasties that gardeners in the rest of Canada contend with. Indeed, one brazen fellow sat on the porch and eavesdropped while we spoke.

The eastern grey squirrel is bigger, bolder, meaner and hungrier than most squirrel species and they have Montreal gardeners by the throat, or so they think. Bulbs to them are an easy delicacy, but there are ways to defy them, including just waiting. The classic squirrel-scuppering recipe is to plant bulbs deep, compress the earth well and sprinkle with blood meal. The recipe ends with planting late, which will throw ‘em off the scent.

Grey squirrels don’t hibernate, but they do slow down in early winter. They are less aggressive, less energetic and, as the soil freezes, so does their ability to raid it. The trick is in the timing.

Often in late fall, the top inch or two of soil freezes; however, once there is a reliable blanket of snow insulating your garden, those two inches thaw again until temperatures move south for the winter. In Montreal, this period usually lasts into late December or early January. It may not be a bulb’s preferred time to go in, but at least it won’t become squirrel fodder.

Admittedly, this is a process only die-hard bulb lovers will engage in. It involves cold hands, knees and toes and hard work, but it is great exercise if you are up for it and offers you the best chance at having a carpet of colour in the spring if squirrels are your nemesis. If you are fit enough to shovel, you can do it; otherwise, bribe the neighbour’s kid to do it for you.

Winter planting only works with the toughest of bulbs: crocuses, snowdrops, hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, muscari and most allium – all of the spring/early summer classics. Trilliums, aconite, irises, lilies, fritillaries, fall-blooming crocus and anemones need to be planted in late summer or early fall to get their roots down for overwintering.

Keep your bulbs in a cool, dry place or, better yet, stow them in the fridge until the snow comes. Once there is a proper blanket of snow, dig out a spot and test the soil. Chances are it will be moist and workable. When it is, it is time to plant. Clear the snow from the area you wish to plant and then continue as you would in the fall. Plant bulbs in a hole three or four times deeper than its diameter. Err on the side of deeper when critters are a problem. If you are feeling ambitious, you can plant many layers of bulbs – say, tulips at eight inches, daffodils at six inches, muscari and snowdrops at four inches. Back-fill and water well before replacing the snow. Don’t skip that final step: Snow’s insulating power will protect your bulbs for the next two months.

Winter can be a great time to buy bulbs. There may not be tons of choice but, if you’re not fussy, bulbs in December are often heavily discounted. I’ve found them for next to nothing at big-box stores and garden centres.



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