Late Fall: Spring plants jump the gun!

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We think of winter as a lull in garden activity. Yet the action continues under ground, and occasionally breaks the surface. 

There's snow coming and my newly planted
(3 weeks ago) oriental lilies are coming up. What should I do? - R.B. -

They're just breaking the surface, right -- their noses just poking up? That's not unusual and probably not a problem.

Although we think of winter as a do-nothing season that's not the perennial plant's perspective. Many of them keep growing right until the ground freezes, working their ground-hugging basal leaves and using the energy to build root, or using stored energy to grow roots and position their new shoots for an early spring break-through.

For many, it's a nearly non-stop life cycle, as in the diagram above.


They keep on growing right under our feet, and might even peek out

The fall growth of lilies, trillium, bulbous iris and others is hidden from us, but they're putting energy into developing roots and furthering next spring's shoot. The iris illustrated above is one of the earliest to arise in spring. Other species do no more than lift their new shoot one inch out of the bulb and then rest until a February or March thaw. Either way, they "feel" enough cold as their shoot tip nears the surface, to halt that growth just below ground. Then, the tip rests there -- it can actually photosynthesize, using that little bit of light that filters through. That light energy helps the bulb keep growing more roots.

Sometimes the tip does break through, but if it does all that may be lost are tips of the top leaves, those which are compressed protectively above the actual growing point. And even those tips may survive if they're right near the ground or surrounded by insulating mulch, getting the benefit of the ground warmth.

You can hedge your bets by throwing a deep heap of leaves over any exposed new growth. The snow will do you that favor, if it comes. It's great insulation.


Glad we could help assure you that your bulb investment is safe.  Garden AtoZ will continue to provide great ideas, but help us out by sponsoring this page and sharing it with others!


Amazing: What goes on underground in fall

The drawing at the top of this page shows you the life cycle of bulbous iris (Iris reticulata). Its timing is a bit faster than some other plants but its stages of growth are typical of many bulb-forming perennials including lilies (Lilium), and also of woodland ephemerals. Notice how many roots develop after the shoot emerges, even while it remains below ground. That's the result of solar energy captured by the green tip of the shoot. It's not so dark as we think, down in a crumbly soil!
Also note the horizontal line across the middle of the diagram -- ground level. The iris bulb, about an inch tall overall, is planted with four inches of soil over its nose. Plant it less deep and it's more likely to break the surface in fall than otherwise.


Precocious plants: Fall is growing time!

Many perennials give their gardeners a scare when they grow new leaves, emerge from underground in late fall, or open some of their flowers. Not to worry. They may lose leaf tips (emerging bulbs), waste a few flowers (forsythia, azalea), or die back again to their crown (daisies, bearded irises). All in all, however, they probably realize a net gain, given the energy they can harness in a few days in the fall sun.

Some plants have made leafing out in fall a regular part of their life cycle. Oriental poppies (Papaver orientale), grape hyacinth (Muscari species) and some crocuses come up green in fall, then resume in spring to make more leaves and a flower stalk.




Lots of animals know that spring is just under the surface of the soil. This deer, caught in the act of snacking on some lobelia, may come back in winter to paw through insulating snow to ground that's diggable even in winter. She'll scrape through to the growing points of trillium, hosta and other plants. They're fresh vegetables in a season of want!
Photo ©2009 Sheryl Kammer


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