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bulb-growing basics: a springtime recap

Varieties of Narcissus from the gardenTHEY’RE ONE OF SPRING’S best garden performers: flower bulbs. But what if your daffodils have no flowers (or very few), or the animals dug up or ate your tulips and you want a solution for the future? A springtime recap of bulb-growing basics, to answer  some of the most common flower-bulb questions I’m being asked right now:

When do I feed flower bulbs? Generally feed bulbs when their foliage pokes through the ground, in early spring, with an all-natural organic formula labeled for bulbs. You basically topdress the area; that is, sprinkle it and maybe scratch it around gently at most, but don’t work it in roughly, so as not to harm the bulbs, but let the fertilizer mellow gradually itself. Don’t forget to feed your garlic bulbs in the vegetable garden, too.

When can I cut off flower bulb foliage? Don’t trim back foliage until the bulb is done with it—until the foliage fades naturally, nourishing the bulb below in the process. If the bulbs didn’t need its foliage it would wither it sooner itself. Be patient, because trimming back foliage too soon is one possible reason for skimpy bloom.  Speaking of which…

Why do my daffodils have few or no flowers? Why aren’t my daffodils blooming as well as they used to? Flower bulbs can fail to bloom well because of various factors, including too little light, too little moisture during active growth months, too much competition with tree roots for moisture and nutrients,too much Nitrogen, failure to allow the foliage to ripen naturally, and more. The details on when bulbs fail to bloom properly (above).

When do I dig and divide overcrowded bulbs? There are two opinions here: “in the green” (meaning while the foliage is still active and on the plants) and after ripening (when the foliage has browned naturally). The American Daffodil Society says dig daffodils after the foliage ripens (for me with Narcissus, that’s about July 4) and transplant then. Or, they say, you can dig after the foliage withers, then store until fall in mesh bags in a dry, not-sunny spot (like in the garage) and replant at that time. A lot of expert friends I know like to transplant “in the green” because it’s easier to see where the bulbs are, but if you damage/remove the leaves in the process, the bulb doesn’t get fed by the full weeks of photosynthesis that intact leaves are meant to perform. “In the green” relocation is probably best with minor bulbs (snowdrops, for instance, are one such example).

Squirrels dug up my crocus. Now what?  Many bulbs—tulips. lilies, crocus, and more–are favorites of animals. I don’t think planting in underground cages or spreading blood meal or any such tactic it truly effective. Time instead for investigating animal-resistant flower bulbs instead. Here’s my list (which includes snowdrops, scilla, alliums, winter aconite, daffodils and many more beauties).  And here’s why I have given up on crocus entirely, plus a slideshow of some of the many animal-resistant bulbs I grow.

cannas ready to put up after storageWhen can nonhardy bulbs such as dahlias and cannas be planted outside? I don’t like to expose tender bulbs such as my overwintered cannas (above) to any chance of frost, and they don’t like the cold ground. So rather than pushing them out the door I pot them up in the barn (a bit warmer that outside) a month or so ahead of my frost-free date, like this (a story and slideshow).

Have more flower-bulb questions? All my flower-bulb Frequently Asked Questions and answers are on this page.

  1. Michelle Robinson says:

    Thanks for refresher! I have a question about what to do with bulbs I grew indoors over the winter? I potted up some tulips last February and after they flowered, I left them in the pots because I didn’t know what to do with them :) Do I save them for fall planting or are they considered spent? Thanks!

  2. mikeinportc says:

    Michelle, plant them, they’ll grow. They might take until 2015 to get back to normal, but some will be OK next year. Fertilizing them will help. If the foliage is very soft and tender, it’d be better to wait until they won’t get frosted. It wouldn’t kill them, but the loss of leaves will make the recovery process take a bit longer.
    I used to work for a place that grew bulbs for pots & cut flowers. We all took home the leftovers, and cut off bulbs. The overwhelming majority survived, and grew well.

    Re the squirrels, if the vulnerable bulbs are planted among pungent plants , that are up at the same time (alliums, fritillaria, salvia, etc) ,they usually leave them alone.

  3. Amy says:

    I have a pot of eucomis I overwintered in the basement. I live in zone 5B Margaret, near you. When should I take them out? This very weekend the weather report is 29 degrees Saturday night. Can they withstand that? Do you wait until there’s a few inches of new growth to dress with bulb tone? Thanks!

  4. Tillie says:

    Hi Margaret,
    My question involves how to apply bone meal to existing bulbs. I have hundreds of bulbs, many emerging out of ground covers, in an area of about one acre of sandy soil. The instructions say, “Work a little bone meal into the top bit of soil.” I also read somewhere that unless the bonemeal is down near the bulb/root area, that it does no good. I do use rotted manure pretty much everywhere, each Fall, mulch with shredded leaves and apply a slow-relase granular fertilizer in the spring. So what is my best course of action with the bone meal for my bulbs? I find it impossible to work bone meal into the soil, and have just been sprinkling it around the plant.

  5. Florence W. says:

    Hi Margaret, Every time I read about planting daffodils and applying bone meal when planting I think of our dog, Champ, a black lab. I had just finished planting at least 25 bulbs, the “best” of that years purchase, and decided to take a break for lunch. The dog was snoozing in the sun. When I came back after lunch, Champ had dug up all of the bulbs, had eaten all the bone meal and most of the daffodil bulbs. The garden was a mess. He must have had a cast iron stomach because he had no ill effects from his “lunch.” I laughed but I wanted to cry…

  6. Deirdre in Seattle says:

    25 years ago, I read that, according to research by WSU, daffodils that had their leaves cut off six weeks after they finished blooming did as well or better than daffodils left to ripen completely. I’ve been doing ever since with great success. After a few years, I realized that six weeks after bloom was when the foliage flops over. So for twenty years, I have cut back the foliage when it flops rather than keeping track. My daffodils are spectacular if I do say so myself. Select a patch and see for yourself.
    Where I live Muscari send up their leaves in the fall and are green all winter. They are something of a weed, too. I cut back the foliage immediately after bloom, and tough little bulbs that they are, they bloom year after year none the less.

  7. Deirdre in Seattle says:

    PS. My squirrels seem to leave the little C. tomassinianus alone.

    Back when I had dogs, I’d sprinkle dog poop over newly planted bulbs to deter the squirrels, and yes, I wore gloves when gardening.

  8. Susannah says:

    Hi Margaret, great timing with this article. I do have one question I did not see on your Daffodils FAQ page – if some daffodils were planted in a spot that does not get enough sun, when is the best time to relocate the bulbs? Is it after flowering season when I can still see the foliage or should I mark the area and dig up the non-flowering bulbs in the Fall and replant at normal bulb planting time?

    Thanks so much!
    Susannah
    East Hampton, NY

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Susannah. The American Daffodil Society says dig after the foliage ripes (withers on its own — here that’s about July 4) and relocate. Or, you can dig after foliage ripening, store in mesh bags in a dry, not-sunny spot (like in the garage) till fall and plant then. A lot of friends I know like to transplant “in the green” (meaning when the foliage is showing) because it’s easier to see where the bulbs are, but if you damage/remove it during transplant, the bulb doesn’t get fed by the full weeks of photosynthesis the intact leaves re meant to perform.

  9. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I have just marked with small bamboo stakes all the spots where BIG, FAT RABBIT dined away on my crocus so I will know where to plant more narcissus. By the way, could I plant the bulbs now? I know traditionally these bulbs are planted in fall, but I am curious – then I can ditch the stakes and hey, maybe pick up some bulbs on sale! Appreciate the wildlife resistant bulb list! I have had luck with species tulips – the fatty, chipmunks, and squirrels don’t seem to like them. Here it seems skunks have a fancy for any kind of delicious smelling fertilizer, not the flowers or bulbs, so I just rely on the compost in my beds.

  10. Jo says:

    Margaret, if there are certain bulbs that you really, wish to have, perhaps you’ll feel strongly enough to do what I do for those: I plant the bulbs in cages (and that term is very loose: colanders bought at yard sales w/a small bit of hardware cloth over it, and many other types of home-made grow-thru contraptions). Then when they come up I cover or protect them with above-ground caging (eg tall columnar birdfeeders tossed out at the dump or at yard sales, top and bottom removed, and many other types of home-made shelters) or other types of group bulb protection (a small fenced-in area). Some will see this as too much work but for a few of my favorite flowers every year (lilies!) I find it worth the trouble.

  11. Henry Renteria says:

    I live in the San Jaquien Vally in California, we’ve been in a drout here, just need to know if it’s to late for me to plant bulbs now? If not how should I store them. Thanks.

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