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Here'show to make sure your tulips, daffs and other Spring-blooming bulbsreturn year after year
Q. Hi Mike: Two years ago Iplanted daffodil and tulip bulbs in our shady yard. The first spring Ihad beautiful blooms, but last spring and now again this spring, I'mgetting leaves but no blooms. What can I do? We're alsohaving construction done on our house and I need to 'move' one of theirflowerbeds. Will it be alright to put the bulbs in a temporarybed for a few months? Thank you!
---Quinn in Middletown,Delaware.
A. Great timing, Quinn—this isthe perfect time of year to help everyone out there properlyperennialize their Springbulbs so that they can enjoy those beautiful blooms year after year.
Several problems can cause greens returning with no flowers. My firstthought is your avowed shade; if it's deep, deep, deep allatimedarkness from evergreens overhead, your Spring bulb leaves aren'tgetting enough solar energy to form the following year's flowers. Whenyou first purchased those bulbs a couple of Falls ago, the followingSpring's blooms were already formed inside the bulbs; I always used toillustrate this wonderful fact of nature when I would do my annualSpring bulb bit on the Today show by cutting a bulb open to show theflower inside. So the first year's flowers are free. But then the bulbshave to get enough sun to form new flowers for the following year. Now,if your shade is from deciduous trees, you should be fine—by the timethey fully leaf out in the Spring, your bulbs should have gotten allthe sun they need.
The solar energy angle also comes into play when people cut their bulbsback to the ground right after they flower. If you have a fast handwith the clean up, the bulb itself may survive, but it won't be friskyenough to make a new flower. It's always a good idea to remove thefaded blooms and any seed heads that form on your plants, but you haveto leave the leaves in place until they lose their rich green color toget future flowers. That's why I like to plant my bulbs so that laterbloomers like tulips come up in front of the really early ones likedaffodils—the new flowering plants nicely hide the fading foliage ofthe old ones.
Incorrect feeding is a third big potential reason. Bulbs need food,just like other plants—but people often give them the wrong kind offood. You know what they say—"too much nitrogen and not enoughphosphorus makes Jack a dull boy"! OK, so nobody says that. Theyshould! Anyway, if you overfeed ANY flowering plant a nitrogen richfertilizer—like manure or a packaged fertilizer with a high firstnumber on the label—you'll get lots of lush green growth, but noflowers.
Fertilizing 101: All packaged fertilizers, chemical or organic, willhave three numbers on the label that refer to their relative amounts ofthe three main basic plant nutrients, Nitrogen, Phosphorus andPotassium (which old-timers love to call 'Potash'), abbreviated N-P-K.In the simplest sense, N grows big plants; P stimulates flowering andfruiting; and K builds strong roots. Over many, many years—generationsin fact—premier Spring Bulb enthusiast Brent Heath of Brent &Becky's Bulbs in Gloucester, Virginia, has found that bulbs like alittle bit of Nitrogen, a fair amount of phosphorus and a LOT ofpotassium (which, being a fellow old guy, he calls potash). After all,he reminds me, a Spring bulbs is essentially just one big root! Brentadds that his years of experience have shown compostto be the best bulb fertilizer. He says he just mixes a lot of thatfine organic matter into the soil when he plants his bulbs and theresults are spectacular.
Brent adds that bulbs also need adequate moisture to develop futureflowers. This would have been a problem in your area during thethree-year drought we East Coasters endured a while back, but the lasttwo years have been fiendishly wet; and that may also be the problem.If your bulbs are planted in heavy clay soil that's been waterloggedthe past couple of wet, wet Springs, you're lucky the bulbs haven'trotted, much less flowered.
And finally, my pals at the Netherlands bulb information center addthat compacted soil could also be the problem; don't be walking overtopof where your bulbs are sleeping!
And, I'll add that you're impatient! It's much too early in the seasonto decide that you won't get any flowers this year—especially from yourtulips; the entire Northeast has been cold and wet and everything—Springbulbs, floweringshrubs and trees—isrunning late. Now, if you truly DONT get blooms this year, shovel somecompost around the plants and leave those leaves alone until they turnyellow. Then, yes—do digthem up and move them to another area for your construction. Find anice sunny, well-drained spot, amend the soil with lots of good qualitycompost, plant them there, and then LEAVE them there. In gardening, asin real estate, location is everything.
You Bet Your Garden Question of the Week ©2005Mike McGrath
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