It’s probably obvious by now that I really like to grow plants from bulbs. This time of year some might be content dreaming about that first snowdrop braving the chilling winds or how beautiful all the tulips will be along the front walkway or even what varieties of dahlias to order. I find myself bringing forced hyacinths up from the basement to be slowly coaxed into bloom, potting up amaryllis bulbs, and finally getting around to cleaning the gladioli corms I dug up last November.
The gladioli were mostly given to me by a fellow MA Master Gardener when she and her husband pulled up their roots, sold their house and moved to a retirement community in Connecticut. I have been growing them for almost 20 years now and each time a bright salmon colored blossom unfolds, I think of her. Gladioli also adorned my grandmother’s garden. I remember visiting her as a young child and staring up at the glorious blooms on stems reaching over my head. Glads make long-lasting, vibrant cut flowers and really are pretty easy to grow.
If you want to extend your cut flower season, plant batches of corms at two week intervals. In the Northeast I begin planting them in mid-May and finish up in mid-June although you could probably keep going into July. The corms are planted about 4 to 6 inches deep. The tall ones do require staking but to minimize work for myself, I have them growing through some wire grating which pretty much keeps them upright.
At the end of the season, usually in late October or November depending on the weather, the glads must be dug up in my region. I cut back the foliage to a few inches above the corms and then lift from the ground, shaking off loose soil and just set them in a tray. Corms are rather peculiar food storage organs. Each year the old corm dies and a new one is produced. If the plants are happy they produce lots of baby corms, called cormels, and these begin to grow around the new corm. If you wanted, you could pluck the cormels and plant them in a separate nursery bed in late spring. The ones the size of a dime or larger will be less likely to dry out and die over the winter. They could be stored in a paper bag at about 45 degrees F. It usually takes 2 or 3 growing seasons for your cormel to grow into a blooming size bulb.
Glad corms before and after cleaning. Note the little cormels on the right.
I never seem to get around to cleaning the gladioli bulbs until about now. They have been kept in the cellar in the same tray I initially put them into. Now the old corms and cormels are separated from the new one. This is done by giving a little twist to the old corm. Any remnants of the old, dried foliage are also twisted off the top of the corm. Next, they are stored in an old grapefruit sack in the basement until May. Storage temperatures in the upper 40’s to lower 50’s seem to work well.
Stored glad corms in an old mesh bag.
The amaryllis bulbs probably could have been planted before Christmas but I never seem to get around to potting them up until now. They spend the summer outside in a shaded area of the garden and are generally dug up around the end of October. A few light frosts don’t seem to bother them. They are also laid in trays in the cellar and the leaves will die back. For years I had heard a dry dormant period was necessary for flower bud initiation but apparently this is not true for many varieties. I have seen several pots of amaryllis that are encouraged to grow year-round and still send up abundant blossoms. I may try this one year but for now I like the dig up and forget about the plant for a while scenario.
There also has been much emphasis on leaving the top one-quarter to one-third of the bulb above the potting mix. I found this doesn’t really matter too much either and sometimes just the top of the bulb is peaking through the potting mix and it still grows and blooms just fine. The most important part of potting up an amaryllis bulb is to put it in a relatively heavy container like clay or ceramic because the blossoms are large and weighty and the whole plant may topple over if kept in a light plastic pot.
Potting up amaryllis bulbs.
My favorite way to force hyacinths is in hyacinth glasses although occasionally, I do pot some up as well. When purchasing bulbs in September for fall planting, a few extra hyacinths are purchased and the bulbs for the glasses go into the vegetable keeper in the refrigerator. A little before New Year’s, I put them in their specially formed hyacinth glasses and fill with water until it just barely reaches the bottom of the bulb which is known as the basal plate. Then these go down into the cool, dark cellar. After a month or so, lots of white roots form and the top shoot begins to elongate. They are brought upstairs to a bright, relatively cool location and will bloom in about 3 weeks. The key to forcing bulbs is to use a thermometer, take some notes and experiment with different regions in your house. I froze and desiccated a fair amount of bulbs before coming up with ideal locations.
Hyacinths forced in hyacinth glasses and in pot.
If you enjoy seeing bulbs forced into bloom, you might want to visit the Spring Bulb Show at the Smith College Botanic Garden in Northampton, MA. It runs for two weeks beginning the first Saturday in March. For more information, check out