NOW is the Time to Care for your Spring Bulbs Correctly
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Q. Michael in Northern Virginia (near Washington) writes: "Can I divide my spring bulbs? Is after the blooms have faded the best time? Thanks, and stay safe from the evil squirrels."
A. I wish! 'Evil' is too nice a word! They're already planting black walnuts (that they must have been saving all winter) in my container-grown lettuce!
Anyway, I've never even thought about dividing my Spring bulbs; I just let them grow, and I really like the way they look in clumps. But if divide you wish, do not do it right after the flowers fade! Instead, clip off any seed heads that form and then be patient. You must wait until the green leaves have turned yellow or brown, the signal that they have grown next year's flowers inside the bulbs. If you dig them up prematurely, you won't get flowers next Spring.
Then you can gently remove the browned-out leaves and replant them immediately if the area is going to be kept dry over the summer and you're not going to plant anything overtop of them. Because watering the new plants could rot the bulbs below. Much better to store the bulbs inside for replanting in the Fall.
Rub off any dirt that rubs off easily, but do not wash them. I would NOT cut the leaves off of bulbs in storage; even brown, those leaves will naturally keep moisture inside the bulb. Then wrap them in newspaper or surround them with slightly moist peat moss and store them in a mouse-proof container until Halloween. After Trick or Treat is over, take the bulbs out of storage and discard any that feel soft or show signs of rot.
Then plant them in their new location between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Don't feed them now. Remember; the next flower is already formed inside. If you want to feed Spring bulbs, the time to do so is right after the flowers fade in the Spring, to make sure the new flower gets all the nutrition it needs. Big, full-sized bulbs can just go in the ground. If the bulb has little 'bulblets' growing alongside the main bulb, gently remove them and plant them elsewhere; they'll flower in a couple of years, depending on their size. Remember to also let their green leaves turn brown naturally; that's THE cardinal rule of successful bulb growing.
Q. Arabella 'in the Kyushu Prefecture of Japan' writes: "Last summer, I bought tulips, refrigerated them for a few months, planted them in the fall, and now they are blooming. I have read your wonderful explanation of how you have tulips that are teenagers. I will follow those instructions. But if I put the tulip bulbs in paper bags and put them in the refrigerator, will they propagate or do they propagate during the time when their leaves are still green to produce the next year's flowers?"
A: A little research reveals that Kyushu is the Southernmost of the four main islands that make up Japan; the name means "nine provinces" and it's home to 14 million people on fourteen thousand square miles, so we don't know exactly where Arabella lives, but the entire island is identified as being subtropical; very different than the 'blazing hot in the summer' and 'freezing cold in the winter' climate in which tulips and other Spring bulbs originated. In addition, my perhaps-overly-nerdy research revealed that the island gets 63 inches of rain a year, which is substantial.
All this adds up to Arabella planning to do the right thing. It may not get cold enough in the winter to successfully chill bulbs in the ground; and all that rain would probably rot most bulbs. So like we've been saying, wait until the leaves lose their green color in the Spring and dig them up. And then, just like in warm climates like the American South, chilling is a good idea. Arabella has apparently had success with planting her chilled bulbs in the Fall, but I'll suggest an alternative. Store the freshly harvested bulbs as we have described above for a coupla months, then chill them for 16 weeks and plant them outside in January. This would better mimic their natural cycle.
Oh, and for the record, the red tulips off to the side of my raised beds that Arabella refers to are middle-aged, not teenagers. They were here when we moved in 35 years ago!
Q. Kate in New Haven writes: "I was hoping I could plant bulbs in my raised bed in a community garden, but the catalog I was going to order from advises against raised beds and outdoor containers for bulbs. The stated reasons are poor drainage (not a problem in my case) and temperature fluctuations (which may be a problem in my case). Thanks!"
A. Stuff and nonsense! Container planting is much more complicated and depends on the size and structure of the container and your climate, but there is no reason to denigrate raised beds, which always drain better than flat ground; and the "temperature fluctuations" in New Haven are perfect for keeping Spring bulbs happy and productive. Just to be clear, flat earth is also fine for bulbs; some of mine are planted in raised beds while others are growing (or have colonized) flat ground, and all do well.