Bulbs Looking Tired? We Can Fix That!

Blooming_Tulip_GardenThis past season you may have noticed that your tulips, allium, callas or other bulb plants bloomed a little less than usual. In fact, this may have been happening slowly over the past few seasons, the bulbs underground continually multiplying and becoming over-crowded, with the result being tired-looking flower beds and fewer and fewer flowers to decorate your yard or home.

Plants growing from bulbs are a fantastic way to ensure your vases stay full and your yard stays beautiful with very little maintenance; however, most plants require some form of TLC and bulb beds need to be thinned every few years in order to continue to look their very best.

Most flower beds planted in bulbs will grow in width and breadth, continuing to bloom prolifically for many years, displaying lush foliage when they aren't actually in bloom. Some bulb flowers, such as daffodils, will grow forever without needing much care at all, though most will benefit from regular feeding, as well as periodic lifting and dividing. The improvement you'll see upon feeding your bulb-type plants after they've been starved for a while may be quite dramatic and surprising.

So, if your bulb flower beds aren't producing blossoms like they used to, this spring may be the ideal time to refresh them and start a new traditionfeeding them on a regular basis. Fall is the best time to dig and divide bulbs, as the foliage starts to decline but is still visible. The bulbs will be in a recharging period, the blooming season done, preparing for next season's growth while slumbering through the winter.

Planting_Tulip_BulbsYou can also dig and divide bulbs in the spring, though you may lose out on some of that season's blossoms and it should be done as the bulbs are just starting to send up new growth:

  • Keep in mind that bulbs' roots will pull them deeper over time, and they will spread out as a result of the offsets they produce.
  • Dig carefully, a few inches away from where the stem exits the ground, gently rocking your trowel or bulb spade to loosen the soil as you dig deeper.
  • Remove the bulb by lifting with your hands or garden tool from underneath; avoid pulling on the stem or foliage, and disturb the bulb as little as possible.
  • Pull the offset bulbs from the base of the plant. You can replant all of the offsets or only plant the largest and give the smaller bulbs as gifts to your friends and neighbors. The largest offset bulbs will have more energy to bloom sooner.
  • You can replant them right away, or store them for planting in the fall. Plant large bulbs 6 to 8 inches deep and smaller bulbs 4 to 5 inches deep.
  • Check the original bulb's viability. If it appears damaged or otherwise unhealthy, discard it. If it seems to be healthy, you can replant it.
  • You can replant all of the offsets or only plant the largest. Be sure to allow plenty of space between bulbs in order to increase the time necessary between refreshing your beds.
  • Feed as you plant!

Tulip_FertilizerSome fertilizers are capable of burning the roots when put into the planting hole. Espoma Bulb-tone will not, when applied according to directions. If replanting, mix about 1 1/2 teaspoons of bulb food into the hole and mix well with the soil before putting the bulb back into the ground. If you are planting a large area, you'll be mixing about 1 1/2 lbs. (4 1/2 cups) for every 25 linear feet. For established bulbs, make your first application when the plants are about 6 inches tall and then reapply when the blooming season has ended, being sure to wash any stray fertilizer from the leaves while watering well.

This little bit of carefeeding twice a year with Espoma Bulb-tone and digging and dividing every 3 to 5 yearswill be worth every bit of effort when you see the resulting blooms and you cut those gorgeous, aromatic blossoms to fill your vases.

2 Responses to “Bulbs Looking Tired? We Can Fix That!”

  1. Does this apply to iris? Our bed is horribly overgrown, and we’ve been told not to mulch it, so weeds have encroached and the iris bulbs are crowded – the bed is about 40 feet long by 15 feet wide. There are daylilies interspersed among the iris. My husband just mowed the entire bed to the ground, and now new growth is appearing. I don’t want to lose the iris (some of them are from 50 year old transplants), but am beyond knowing how to care for them going forward. Thanks for your help. Oh, by the way, the lemon grass and mosquito plants we purchased from you are thriving!

  2. Karen says:

    Becky: German Bearded Iris corms are a little different than typical bulbs. Instead of being buried underneath the soil they prefer to sit more on top, which is why you don't want to mulch over them. Covering them makes it too enticing for bugs to chomp away at the tasty flesh. However, you do want to keep them weeded and every three to four years it's best if you dig and divide them so they don't get so over-crowded, also making them susceptible to pests. A word of warning about mowing them down: the mower blade can cut into tender corms and damage them. It's best to just take a pair of scissors or hand grass trimmer and cut the foliage back mid summer and let some new growth come on. A clean sharp cut is the best; mowers and string trimmers will rip and shred tender foliage.

    Dig them up in mid-fall and break or pull apart the larger corms, this is the best time to trim down the foliage and inspect for damage or presence of the iris bore, the biggest pest for Bearded Iris. If the corm is mushy or you see a worm that has eaten into it, throw the corm away. While you have all the corms out it's a good time to thoroughly clean the bed of weeds and to add some compost to the soil before replanting the corms back into the bed. To plant them, the best way is to just lay them on the soil with the roots spread out and then sprinkle the soil over the roots and gently pat it down around the corm. If the corm is buried a little it won't hurt, as the newly disturbed soil will settle down around them. You can plant them closely together but don't overlap them too much or you will be doing this again in another year.

    Since you've now divided and multiplied your stock you will have some to share or to create a new planting to enjoy somewhere else in your yard.

    Your iris bed will be lovely next spring, especially after you give them a nice sprinkling of an all-purpose fertilizer. We recommend Espoma Bulb-tone.

    Master Gardener

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