Is it too early to plant liatris bulbs in Western New York?

Liatris spicata. Photo courtesy Ball Horticultural
Liatris spicata. Photo courtesy Ball Horticultural Company

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Here’s a question I received from a reader early last week when the weather became warm and sunny:

Hello.

Can I plant liatris bulbs now? Or should I wait until the soil warms? 

Thank you.

Linda in Tonawanda

In case you’re not familiar with this plant, here’s a little bit of information about liatris. It blooms in summer with large flower spikes that attract butterflies. The plant is drought-resistant, so it doesn’t need much care. It likes sun. You can buy liatris plants at garden centers in May. If you want to grow them from bulbs, you can plant the bulbs  in fall or spring.

But how early in the spring can you plant the bulbs?

I’m not an expert gardener, so I asked a gardening expert for help.

Wait until about April 15, said Ethan Waterman, manager at Waterman’s Greenhouse, 12316 Vaughn St. (Route 240), East Concord (Springville).

It’s only March, and in a normal year, we’re still likely to get a heavy frost or snow.

We’ve been experiencing mild weather, and if we get a couple weeks of nice weather, the bulb could start to sprout. Then if we get a heavy frost or snow, the plant could be damaged or killed, Waterman said.

Do you remember what happened in our gardens March 2012? It felt as if spring– or maybe summer– had arrived early and was here to stay.

We had record-setting high temperatures– in the 80s. Spring flowers such as daffodils were two to four weeks early. That was fine for those plants that can stand a frost. But some trees and tender plants were fooled into leafing out too early. Then when we did get a frost later in March, those plants were damaged. That’s what could happen if you plant those liatris bulbs now.

Some people might argue that if you plant the bulb two or three inches down, it shouldn’t be harmed, he noted.

“But why buy something and plant it now and take the chance that it will die?” Waterman said. “If it’s my money, I would wait a little longer.”

Waiting until April 15 to plant the bulbs isn’t going to affect the plant size or the flowering date, he said. You’re not going to get a head start by planting now. If you wait, you’re increasing your chances that the plant will do well.

What if you already have liatris planted in your garden?

“That’s a whole different situation,” Waterman said. You don’t have to worry about a plant that is already established because “it has that root system to keep the plant going. It’s a hardy plant.”

One more tip: April 15 is just a guideline. Our gardens can often be wet in April. Don’t try to plant if the soil isn’t workable. Scoop up some soil and squeeze it in your hand. If it’s crumbly, you can work it. If it forms a glob, it’s too wet.

How to get your questions answered

Sometimes readers contact me with questions that I can’t answer. I’m not a gardening expert– I’m a writer by profession. I interview knowledgeable people in order to provide you with great articles on Buffalo-NiagaraGardening.com.

This time I interviewed an expert, but when someone asks a question I can’t answer, I usually post the question and rely on my readers to share their expertise by leaving comments.

Sending a question to me to post can be helpful if you’re looking for a wide range of opinions and don’t mind waiting for the answer. If you want to try this route, email the question to me at connie@buffaloniagaragardening.com and I’ll pose it to my readers in an upcoming issue.

A more efficient route for getting your questions answered is to turn to Master Gardeners with Cornell Cooperative Extension or to turn to your local garden center.

For Master Gardeners at Cornell Cooperative Extension Erie County, call (716) 652-5400 from 9 a.m. to noon weekdays or email them at mgeriecce@gmail.com. For Chautauqua County, email your question to CCEMGCC@gmail.com; call the Helpline at (716) 664-9502, ext 224, or stop in to the Frank Bragg Ag Center, 3542 Turner Rd., Jamestown,  from 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesdays.

There are helpful Cornell Cooperative Extension offices in other counties, too. Find contact information here for your county’s Cooperative Extension office.

The businesses that support this magazine have very knowledgeable staff. Check out our Gardening Directory or click on the ads to the right.

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