Last minute strategies

Bulbs in a pot

Can you believe it’s almost December? It happened again. I let the early fall slip away, finding myself with almost 1200 bulbs, a front and back yard covered in leaves, and now—it’s snowing.

I don’t mind winter, really. I enjoy the time away from gardening, and I like imagining that I might actually take up snow shoeing, cross-country skiing, and/or some kind of low-impact sledding. In the meantime, the snow is really pretty—when it’s here—and there’s plenty of time to enjoy reading, fireplace inserts, stews made from locally-raised meat, and the glorious tropical atmosphere of our local botanical garden. And Barbados, if possible.

I am left with one necessity. The 1200 bulbs have to go somewhere. Thanks to my big pots and forcing program, I’ve managed to get most of them under a coating of soil, but a few hundred still require actual in-ground planting. This is almost impossible on my property, riddled as it is with maple tree roots and loaded as it is with other bulbs I’ve planted and forgotten about.

When I first started gardening, I thought that the bulb planting tools they sell in garden centers or online actually worked. Ha! Most of them are useless, though I suppose wooden dibbles are fine when you’re planting a bulb at a time. Which I never do.

These days, I rely on two tools for bulbs: the Cobrahead and my big heavy shovel. The Cobrahead is technically a weeder and a cultivator, but I’ve never used it for either of those purposes. For me, it’s perfect for getting through roots so I can plant 5-7 species tulips or other small bulbs. As for the shovel, if I stand on it, it will get in deep enough so that I can use my Cobrahead and pruners  to create a space big enough to drop in 7-10 larger bulbs. Or more.

And that’s how I get it done at this stage of the game. Thanks to rough and ready methods, I can contemplate winter with an attitude that transcends resignation.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. My dad and I once, when planting bulbs in his yard during the first week of December, used an electric blanket to warm up the already frozen soil. It worked and they bloomed. Late bulb planting just means you have a busy life! No shame in that!

  2. I stand on the shovel to cut through the little maple feeder roots that blanket my lower garden, then pry it up enough to poke the bulbs underneath.

    I’m sure that I will see many places in that garden that could use some early spring colour, but it is such tough going, that I don’t put in as much as other areas.

  3. For small bulbs, like crocus, one can dump them on the ground. Then, dump on a few inches of mulch. Freezing and thawing isn’t a big issue where I live. It may not work where it is.

  4. I love bulbs in containers. I have a few really big containers with evergreen “anchors” as I think of them. One is a Taxus ‘Standishii’ for example. I do annuals in late spring/summer. When it’s time for the annuals to come out I pop in some tulip bulbs. Voila! Container color before annuals are going!

  5. Yeah … I love this time of year — Groundhog Day.

    Must say, I’ve never used Cobrahead before. Given the paucity of good gardening equipment for this work, it’s something I’ll likely get my hands on.

  6. TTS–do try the Cobrahead. It’s a great little tool for both weeding and digging small holes. I’ve used it to dig garlic and the like as well

  7. Bulbs don’t work in the native soil here – I think the heavy clay keeps water around them so that they just rot. Because of that, I put my dozens of tulips, daffodils and freesia in pots. I was hoping for some blooms by Christmas, but since I just got them in … fingers are crossed. Hoping for better luck with the narcissus and tulips I’m trying to force inside.

  8. I purchased one of the original CobraHead weeder and cultivator awhile back and just love it. I have found many uses for it… weeds, cultivates, digs, scalps, edges and a lot more that I can’t think of right now. As far as what to do with your bulbs I never bother digging up my bulbs out of the ground every year. I just don’t think it really improves the bulbs performance at all. I leave my bulbs in the ground so they will multiply giving me even more bulbs next spring.

  9. I made out like a bandit when my local Orange Box clearenced their spring bulbs at 75% off. I got around to planting them in early March last year. Yep, they all bloomed. I had daffodils in May.

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