Nothing beats flowers that appear in the early spring. For many people, it’s not officially springtime until the daffodils have broken through the ground and their green stems are stretching towards the sky. Yet these intrepid spring-flowering bulbs can be delicate if not handled correctly during the rest of the year. Caring for them is easy, though, so long as you understand the time line relating to their needs.
Timeline for Care for Spring Flowering Bulbs
Planting Spring Bulbs – Most spring bulbs are of similar species and have similar needs. Planting is best done in the fall about 6 weeks before the first deep frost. When, exactly, depends on your plant hardiness zone, but the bulbs should have a month or more in the ground to spread their roots before the frost comes and pushes them into winter dormancy. And to dispel the rumor, yes, it can help if the stem side (pointy end) is pointed up when you plant, but this is not imperative. Dig a hole larger than the bulb by at least four times, place the bulb in the hole and fill the hole back in with a mixture of dirt and compost.
Fertilizing – Include a rich compost or aged manure with your bulbs you plant them to provide nourishment during their rooting and dormancy. In the spring, you can add more fertilizer, but it’s best to wait until the foliage has sprouted and is two or three inches high – most gardeners wait all the way until the flowers are blooming, which is not a bad idea. Fertilize with a diluted liquid mix (or compost tea) or with slow-release powder or pellets. Be careful not to over-do it. Fertilize again in the fall when the foliage begins to turn yellow.
Trimming and Cutting – You can, of course, cut the flowers anytime you’d like, but the foliage should be left alone as much as possible. In the spring, it can be trimmed to give it a more pleasant shape or to keep it from fanning out to interfere with other plants in the garden. It should not, however, be cut back too severely.
Once the leaves begin to yellow, the plant is in a very critical time. Do not tie back, cut, or otherwise damage the leaves during this period or you could jeopardize the health of the plant. Leaving the leaves in place allows the plant to suck up sunlight and energize the bulb for the winter. Once all the leaves have completely faded (gone yellow), wait at least another week before cutting down to ground level.
Winter Mulching – It’s a good idea to mulch after the first hard, deep freeze. Normally, of course, gardeners mulch to keep the ground warmer and more moist, but in this case, you’re doing it to keep it cold so that it doesn’t thaw and then re-freeze (the heaving ground could crush or push out the bulbs).
Transplanting / Moving Bulbs – Once the bulbs have gone dormant, it’s possible to move them. This is not generally an easy task and the chances of success can be low, but it’s the best time to do it. Dig down around the bulb three or four inches from where the plant’s edges were. Go down about six inches lower than where you believe the bulb is located, then carefully dig inward to make a bucket shape. It’s likely that the bulb has moved down about half an inch or more per year of growth, so don’t expect it to be where you left it when it was planted.
Once it’s dug up, carefully clean away the dirt without disturbing the stem or roots close to the bulb. Do not break the stem or you will likely kill the bulb. Now you have a choice to make as there are two schools of thought on replanting. One says to put the bulb in the refrigerator for the winter and plant in early spring, while the other says to plant it immediately. Both have valid points and seem to have about the same success rate, so it’s up to you.
For Further Reading on Spring-Flowering Bulbs:
Clemson University – Spring-Flowering Bulbs
The International Bulb Society – Flower Bulb Basics and FAQs
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