Spring and Summer Bulb Stories & Beer Fridge Advice
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Q. in the Fall of 2018, George "near Pottstown PA" wrote: "I bought some bulbs this Spring which I planted in large pots, watered well over the summer and fed with organic compost from a bin in my backyard. (Picture attached.)
Now, winter is coming and the plants are dying off. In order to prepare for new growth next spring, I was planning to cut off the dead stalks at the base. Is this what I should do or just leave them to shrivel and fall off? I am presuming that the bulbs can be left out in their pots over winter."
It's a darn good thing that George sent that picture, cause otherwise I'd be scratching my head, because even though they're called "Spring bulbs" they have to be planted in the Fall to bloom in the Spring; and George just said 'bulbs'.
But the photo revealed his bulbs to be canna lilies, a spectacular example of the-called 'summer bulbs' that are planted in the spring for dazzling summer display. I use the term 'so-called' because few of these stunners are actually true bulbs. George's cannas, for instance, grow from rhizomes. But collectively, the family has always been called 'summer bulbs'. Other prominent members include tuberous begonias (as opposed to the much-smaller flowered bedding-plant begonias, which grow on 'normal' roots), dahlias, true lilies, elephant's ear, and gladiolas.
As I hope I advised George back then, almost all of the summer bulbs are tropical plants that have to be heavily protected or dug up and brought inside over the winter in USDA Zones colder than 7 or 8. (In my garden, gladiolas are the exception; they come back year after year without help from me.) If you're in doubt about your specific bulbs' hardiness ask your local county Extension office or search the Net, but only trust advice from State Extension websites or companies that sell the bulbs.
Luckily, George is in the catbird seat, as summer bulbs in containers should simply be brought inside, container and all, and stored in a cool (but not freezing) spot and then taken back outside in the Spring. You can clip off any dead leaves but you don't have to. Summer bulbs growing in the ground? If you're in an in-between climate, like a high USDA Zone 6 or a low 7, 'bulbs' like cannas have a good chance of surviving if you wait until your first frost and then mulch them with two to four inches of shredded leaves or pine straw. Do NOT use wood mulch.
Otherwise, carefully dig them up; again after the first frost; and shake some of the dirt off, but under no circumstances should you wash them. You can wrap them in newspaper and store them in a mouse-proof container or place them in the center of a box filled with slightly-moist milled peat moss and/or perlite until Spring. Again, be sure to keep miserable meeses at bay.
Q. Back in May of this year, Kay in Ashburn Virginia wrote: "I wanted to move my tulips and daffodils to a different garden and dug them up today. When storing them, do I need to have them laying flat or can I put all of them in a shoe box?"
A. To which we responded: "did you allow the greenery to turn brown before you dug them up?"
Q. Kay responds: "The tulips were getting droopy, but the daffodils were green and tall. Should I replant them? Put them in water? Last year I let the leaves die and then I didn't know where the plants were. Am I a lost cause?"
A. You're not a lost cause, Kay. But your bulbs are. If you want to try and save these specific ones, you could plant them now; there's still plenty of time in your area. But, as they sing in the musical Guys and Dolls, "it's a probable twelve to seven" that they will only grow green leaves and no flowers next Spring. But if you feed them when that greenery is lush and let those greens turn to brown, they might provide blooms the following year. Otherwise, buy replacements now (they're likely to be on super closeout sale!) and get them in the ground soon.
Q. And finally: Also back in the Spring, Frank in Arlington wrote: "I bought a bunch of Spring bulbs last fall and didn't plant them. They've been sitting out on my porch. An article says I can 'force them' in my fridge? Or should I just plant them this Fall?"
A. You might as well plant 'em outside now Frank; you got nothing to lose. Forcing is best done in tune with the seasons, so if you miss your planting window (or just want to have some nifty Spring bulb fun), fill twelve inch pots with an organic potting soil, plant four or five bulbs in each pot, water well (just this once) and then place the containers in a fruit-free fridge (fruits give off ethylene gas that can cause premature sprouting) for a minimum of 12 weeks for daffodils and 16 for tulips. Remember that this is a minimum. They can stay in the fridge longer. When Spring-like weather arrives, take the containers outside, water again, and hope you did it right.