Yes, I know. We could have done with this post about two months ago. But two months ago I was planting bulbs and didn’t have time to write it. Still, there’s a good chance there are more than a few of you with boxes of bulbs that haven’t gone in yet, and very little time to deal with them. A garden auger may help you.
It’s sure as hell going to help me. As I type, a thousand bulbs are still sitting in my garage waiting for the ground to temporarily thaw after an insane week of frigid temperatures. This isn’t ideal. It’s so far from ideal that I feel shame in admitting it. Most bulbs need a few weeks gently rooting at 40-50F (4-10C) to allow them to convert starches to sugars and be able to breeze through a tough winter.
What’s more, soil structure is compromised when you’re playing with it at this time of year, no matter how many boards you lay down to distribute your weight. November is ideal bulb planting time in my USDA Zone 6b, but December is usually fairly mild and gives me leeway.
This year I’m going to be pushing it, but with all my pots filled with bulbs, bulbs waiting to be forced indoors in a cold garage, and even a few pots sent to friends, there is nothing else to be done but try and get away with it.
Luckily, these last-minute bulbs are mostly daffodils for grassy slopes and stretches, and the turf layer does provide a bit of insulation to the soil below. They will join 5,500 already planted this year, a great majority of which were introduced to their forever homes by way of a 7” garden (or bulb) auger and a 1/2 inch drill. And two overused battery packs. You can read about the specific bulbs I planted in my latest letter to Scott Beuerlein over on GardenRant.
Which brings me to the point of this post: The pros and cons of these labor-saving devices.
First, what’s a garden auger?
If you’ve never used one before, have I got news for your carpal tunnel syndrome. Garden augers are incredible tools that fit on the end of a [heavy duty] household drill (I use a DeWalt), and quickly and efficiently drill a 2 or 3” hole for bulbs or for market pack annuals, leaving a little soft soil in the base of the hole. I usually work with a wheelbarrow of good compost to throw a trowel-full in to cover them, but often you can simply work with surrounding soil. They vary in length, so you can do this job on your knees, or standing up.
If your soil is soft to average, you can transform a trowel job of 30 minutes into a 3-minute miracle. I use a Power Planter garden auger for several reasons. It’s strong. It’s made in the USA. It’s unconditionally guaranteed. And it’s wonderful to support small business ideas that become big. The enthusiastic owner of Power Planter, Greg Niewold was kind enough to give me an auger to try out many years ago, and I have been using and recommending them ever since. And no, this post is not sponsored beyond an affiliate link – I simply love the product and they have so many options. However there are many companies that sell them.
Here’s a quick video of using one to plant pots of nursery-forced ‘Tête-á-Tête’ daffodils in the early spring.
The pros and cons of garden augers
At first, in my young garden, there were very few cons. Now, ten years on with a lot of plants and bulbs already in, I no longer use the bulb auger in the beds where it can destroy precious things just under the surface, and use it primarily to plant the wide-open spaces of no-mow and mowed turf with bulbs such as Scilla, Narcissus, and Crocus. These are not maintained, pristine lawns, merely green space, so I’m not too finicky about hurting turf in the autumn.
- Efficiently plant large amounts of bulbs very quickly.
- Can cut through rockier soil that is tough on wrists and fingers.
- Is a lot of fun for kids – and gets them to help with the process.
- Makes bulb-planting parties a LOT easier for friends to contemplate.
- Works fantastically for bedding plants in market packs (as long as there are no bulbs or precious things beneath the surface).
- Forces you to think about bulb placement, rather than throwing too many in a shoveled hole because your wrists are giving out.
- Battery life is an excellent measurement of the time you should spend at any one planting session if you have back or wrist problems. It marks the end of a session and forces you to get up and do something else while you are waiting for a re-charge. If you’re under 30 and supple, ignore this last point.
- Can chew up bulbs under the surface before you realize you’ve hit them.
- That one is so important it’s worth listing twice.
- If you’re using a heavy drill with weak wrists, you can wrench your wrist on larger stones. Turning down the torque setting on your drill will stop this from happening.
- Chews up turf, so if you wish to plant crocus just under the turf layer, it’s easier to use a sharp trowel or space and peel it up.
- Your drill wears much faster than it would if you were simply putting screws in walls. Dirt can lodge in nooks and crannies and is tough to clean if you don’t periodically give it a good brushing. My husband is not amused and I have been forced to buy him a new drill (he forgets that I’m the one who bought the one I’ve been abusing).
- Doesn’t work well with a cheap drill. But, after years of a) bare-bones frugality and b) endless home renovation, I can honestly say that a well-made drill/driver set is one of the best and smartest tools you can set money aside to invest in.
As for placement, pairing and timing? If you are tempted, as so many are, to plant bulbs in lines, or squares, or anything that looks regimented – and you are not working for Disneyworld – please don’t. There are so many ways to reconsider the way you approach the art of bulb design – even if you’re only working with a few.
I heartily recommend exploring the concept of Hi/Lo Density Planting with Fergus Garrett’s webinar on layered planting through Great Dixter’s website. Though Great Dixter is a UK garden, Fergus’ techniques for planting are universal and well worth the small amount Dixter charges to view the presentation.
Next November, I’ll be planting bulbs there during their autumn symposium to see these techniques up close in the wet and the cold. I can guarantee that there won’t be any bulb augers handed out – there are simply WAY too many precious things just under the surface.
In the meantime, I’ve got a lot of wild spaces to brighten, and the garden auger will make short work of a tough job.
Well, the auger works fine if your ground is easily tillable but for my rocky shale hillside and even the root filled woods I find a one-handed mattock does the trick for most medium-sized bulbs. For the larger daffodils I use the full two-handed mattock. Of course the auger on the tractor was great for laying out many bulbs in the pasture. 5000 plus bulbs is pretty good for a season. I only managed 1000 this year.
Am not sure I even want to contemplate planting 5,500 bulbs. You may not be 30 but you seem to have the energy of one that age.
Just wanted to say thanks so much for this post! It’s been a bulbsaver and a lifesaver! After reading about your auger and bulb planting adventures, I thought it would be a good addition to my arsenal of tools someday and maybe save some neglected bulbs from the compost pile. Most years, after taking care of garden clients, my personal bulb planting ends up at the bottom of the fall to-do lists and come spring, I sadly find a bag of dried out bulbs in a corner of the garage. It was even worse this fall, as we’ve been relocating from the Mid-Hudson Valley of NY to South Central PA. When packing up the garage last week, I found a forgotten collection of daffodil bulbs stowed in the garage. (I had pulled them out of some oversized planters in late November, before filling the planters with greens for the holidays.) I had all intentions of planting them in the ground, but you know how that goes. So, I did a little research on auger sizes and thought about my new garden soil types: a mix of beautiful loam to orangey clay. My husband suggested that I go with a slightly longer auger in case I wanted to drill planting holes for perennials. I ordered the 12″ x 3″ Power Planter auger, and I’m so glad I did. I brought them to PA this weekend and was thrilled to find the auger had arrived the day before. This winter has been strange, with rebounding temps, the ground has thawed again. The Power Planter worked like a charm today. Planting those leftover daffodils was a dream. The auger handled the clay just as easily as the loamy soil. Your notes on when not to use an auger are spot on too. There are very few stones/rocks here, but more than a few tenacious mulberry roots. I can’t say thanks enough for the recommendation.