Fall. Just the word brings to mind orange, red and yellow leaves on the trees, the smell of woodsmoke in crackling fireplaces, football games, corn mazes, pumpkins and many other autumnal traditions.

One annual tradition in our family was separating, replanting and gifting flower bulbs.

The first weekend in October we would head out to the flower gardens, rakes, shovels and trowels in hand. First, my mother would cut back all the dead foliage. Then, we’d dig up each section of bulbs.

How she could remember which was where and how to tell them apart, I didn’t know for a long, long time. She finally enlightened me. She had both a spring and summer map of the garden so that she knew exactly where each flower was planted.

After trimming, she would direct us exactly where to put the spade and instruct us to go straight down into the soil — never at an angle as we could slice through too many of the hidden treasures that way. Once the shovel was in the soil we’d use it almost like a pry bar to lift the clod.

With our hands, we would gently shake the soil from the bulbs, being careful not to break the little “hairs,” as we would pull apart the extra bulbs generated from that one bulb.

The original bulb would be reburied about twice the depth of the width of the bulb, readying it to pop with color once again the next year.

What I didn’t know as a child, was that my mother didn’t dig up every patch of bulbs every year. She had a three-year rotation cycle to allow the recovery of the bulb, its natural propagation and a year for it to survive on its own.

When we replanted the bulb back in its space, she would add a little fertilizer to the soil. After all the bulbs in that area of the garden were replanted we would water the garden. Once I asked her why water if they already are dead. She said they weren’t dead, just resting. That made plenty of sense to my young mind. Then, my mother would put some mulch on the top.

As we lived in northern Pennsylvania and had lots of maple and oak trees, we had mulched leaves galore to spread on top of the soil. We had lots of fun jumping in the leaves before they got to the mulch pile.

The extra bulbs were shared as gifts with friends and family. My father would illustrate an index card with a picture of the flower, and on the back my mother would write a little about the planting and caring process.

Five years ago when I last visited my hometown, a few old family friends commented on their flowers still going strong.

As you take care of your flower bulbs this fall (before the first hard frost) remember:

• To dig straight down, gently pry the soil.

• Gently remove dirt, separate the bulbs.

• Replant at the proper depth.

• Fertilize and water.

• Cover with several inches of mulch.

And, share the wealth of spring and summer color with your friends and family.

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Thomas is a member of Garfield County Master Gardeners.

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