Just as masks and hand sanitizer are the new normal in the time of COVID, wild swings in weather are the new normal in the time of climate change: it’s hard to know if a hard frost will be followed by 70-degree days or several inches of fresh snow — or alternating cycles of both. If you abandoned all activity in the garden, only to find a string of warm days have given you a reprieve, you may be tempted to try some last-minute planting of spring-flowering bulbs or even garlic. The big question is: When is it really, truly, too late? Conventional wisdom says to plant both in October, but can we rely on conventional wisdom anymore? While October is the ideal time for planting daffodils and tulips, when soil temperatures are still in the 40- to 50-degree range, these bulbs can actually be planted as long as the ground is not frozen, which can mean well into November.

In gardening terms, a light freeze or light frost refers to temperatures that fall just a few degrees below freezing for a few hours. Some hardy plants may not be damaged. A hard frost or killing frost comes when the temperature drops lower, below 28 degrees, for a longer time. It will kill the top growth of most perennials and root crops. But even after plants have died back to the ground, soil temperatures can remain in the low 40s in mid-November. Four to six weeks of rooting time is optimal for bulbs to establish themselves before going dormant until spring, so it’s cutting things close to plant in mid-November, but why not live on the edge? If you still have bulbs sitting around, the only alternative to planting is to try forcing them for indoor bloom later in the winter, so you might as well go for the outdoor spring display, one that will bring cheer and color into the garden after a long, grey winter.

Planting garlic this late is a different story. In our area, which is mostly considered Zone 5, planting garlic in October gives the cloves time to put down roots in the warm fall soil. If you were to dig up a clove you planted a month ago, you’d see that it already has significant root growth. In theory, more roots in fall equals bigger bulbs in summer. So while you can still plant garlic in November, the odds are that your crop will have somewhat smaller cloves and may be a bit reduced in size. But this is way better than no crop at all. In fact, you could plant in early December and still have a decent garlic crop, though one that’s markedly skimpier than the results of earlier plantings.

So if you’ve got the bulbs and a place to plant, you can still get out there in mid-November and work your fingers into the soil. Even if the results are less than perfect, the therapeutic value in being outside during the last few days of good weather makes it all worthwhile.