alliums (background) and their cousin nectaroscordum
alliums (background) and their cousin nectaroscordum
WHEN ARE WE SUPPOSED TO MOVE BULBS that are simply in the wrong place, or have grown overcrowded? Elizabethsflowers asked specifically about her ornamental onions today on the forums, and it got me thinking.

“I planted 3 A. giganteum bulbs in an area where a large spruce had recently been removed,” Elizabethsflowers wrote. “They came up last year, but didn’t seem happy—the leaves quickly turned brown, and the flowers weren’t too impressive. I think they might have been unhappy in that acidic soil. I meant to move them last fall, but forgot! Can I carefully move them now, before they bloom, or should I wait?” So what’s is the answer for alliums, and for other bulbs?


I would not try to move alliums “in the green” (meaning when they are up and growing), I told Elizabethsflowers. The risk of breaking off the stem/foliage—which is what will feed the underlying bulb as it grows and also as it withers naturally while still connected to the bulb—is too great. The architecture of tall alliums (like the ones in the photo’s background, and their botanical cousin Nectaroscordum siculum, foreground) just makes this operation too risky, and they will be even more unhappy if severed from their foodsource. Narcissus and tulips are more forgiving, and so are many of the minor bulbs. But lilies…forget it. They are even more temperamental than alliums.
As for the browning foliage, this is typical of many of the big alliums…the leaves don’t even look great by bloom time, in some cases. That’s why alliums are best grown with a good companion plant “at their feet.” I like the perennial geraniums (like G. macrorrhizum, for example) as a concealer of this allium handicap.
It is probably very dry where Elizabethsflower’s tree used to be, and bulbs need moisture in their active growing phases to plump up (and then need to be drier late in the season when ripening) so perhaps she can help them along with a good, deep drink this spring and until they start to die back. Bulbs can also benefit from being fed when the green get up and growing—I feed my garlic (itself an Allium) when the greens are getting started in the spring.
Bottom line for Elizabethsflowers: Best to carefully mark any alliums and move them in fall, I think, or very early before they have much topgrowth next spring. I prefer fall, when the list of must to-do’s is a little bit shorter and I’m more likely to get it done. Now I have to get outside and replant all those Narcissus I dug up to move to new homes…

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for your answer Margaret. You are right – it is quite dry where my alliums are planted. I’ll take your advice and be sure to mark them for moving this fall – and I’ll plant some pelargonium to hide their leaves for now. Thanks!

  2. La'Tisha says:

    I need some advice on what to plant under my acorn tree. Other than Lillies and Liver-Forever, not much will grow. The big canopy creates a such a micro-climate that the Lillies reach for the sun. Any help you can provide will be appreciated.


    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, La’Tisha. Oak trees and many other mature trees out-compete other plants like perennials and bulbs for all the available light, moisture and nutrients. Only the very toughest of (sometimes boring!) groundcovers will do in the worst situations. Read my story on underplanting starting here, and work your way back to the original story on it. Unless you “limb up” the trees to make more light below, those lilies probably will continue to stretch toward the light — sounds like they need a new home, for a start.

  3. Katie says:

    My allium were too wet and started rotting at the base. Several started falling over and when I moved the stem they lifted easily from the ground, separating from the bulb. I dug the bulbs up and pulled off the rotting material and rinsed them clean. I am now wondering if they stand a chance at surviving if I replant them.

    1. margaret says:

      Can’t hurt to try, Katie, and if the bulb is firm and the foliage has at least started to “ripen” and fade maybe they will recover.

  4. Jeri Curtis says:

    I enjoyed reading this response. My favorite writers tell a story that I can see. Your turn of phrase, “in the green” will stay forever in my vision when I get ready to move a bulb. I’ll wait. Thanks.

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