Tender Bulbs

Amaryllis ucc.edu

Amaryllis bulbs are a common holiday gift, that by February, are done blooming and all you are left with are multiple long strap-like leaves and a dried up flower stalk or two. With proper  care and attention these bulbs will live to produce another bloom next holiday season. The rounded flower stalk will be growing straight up and holding the remains of the past blossom. Cut this off an inch or two above the top of the bulb. Do NOT cut off the strap-like leaves. The leaves are the food factory where photosynthesis happens. The leaves take energy from the sun, converting into carbohydrates to be stored in the large bulb, making next year’s flower. Place the pot containing the bulbs and leaves in a sunny south-facing window for best light. Water when the top inch or so of soil is dry to the touch and do not let the pot sit in water as it could rot the bulb. Treat the plant with a water-soluble houseplant fertilizer monthly. Potted amaryllis can be kept inside as a houseplant or moved outside for the summer. It can also be removed from the pot and planted directly in the ground in a semi-shady to full-sun location after slowly letting it get used to the stronger light. Dig the bulb back up before the danger of the first frost sometime in September. Now is the time cut off all of the leaves and place it in a cool (40 to 50 degree F) and dark place, such as a basement closet or shelf. Leave it there for 8 to 10 weeks. No water or light during this time will put the plant into dormancy. Be sure to mark you calendar to bring it out of hiding, pot it up with new potting soil, provide it with water and sun, then wait for new growth. It can take up to two months before you see the swollen head of the flower stalk appear but the leaves sometimes appear first. Weaker bulbs that did not receive enough sun the year before may not rebloom and will need another year of full sun on their leaves to grow a larger bulb.

I did not mark my calendar and forgot to take out my amaryllis this year. Imagine my surprise at opening the basement cabinet to find a pure white stalk and leaves and bright red flower bud trying to grow out of the dark into the sliver of light where the door meets the frame! without the light the plant was unable to produce green chlorophyll resulting in only white cell growth.

-Carol Quish

Amaryllis grown in the absence of light.

Amaryllis grown in the absence of light.

Lately the calls to the UConn Home and Garden Education Center have been about preparing for winter. People want to prune trees while it is still warm. Pruning for most trees is best done while dormant, in winter cold. Trees really don’t need to be pruned at all, just let them grow into their natural shape and size. If you have a tree or shrub that has outgrown the spot where it is planted, than replace it with a more appropriately sized plant. I have seen many houses where the Rhododendron maximum has taken over entire picture windows! I can only wonder how the view from inside looking out appears. Those plants need to be ripped out and replaced with something that has a much smaller height once it reaches maturity.

Lawns are popular topics on the phone and email contacts. Folks, it is too late to fertilize your lawns now. The plants are going into dormancy. This means they are not actively growing. We know they are not growing because we are not having to mow the grass. If the plants are not growing, they are not moving very much water through their roots up to the leaves. Fertilizer is water-soluble, taken in by the plants once dissolved in the water. So if plants are not picking up the water, they are not picking up the fertilizer either. The fertilizer does not just sit there waiting for the plant to take it. The fertilizer will be washed away with rain and snow, moved down and out of the reach of grass-roots in the spring when the plants wake up and start moving water again. Wait to fertilize lawns until you have to mow again in the spring.

Vegetable gardens need to be cleaned up now. Cut back the asparagus and destroy the stalks by burning or bagging and place in the household trash. Asparagus beetles can overwinter on the dead foliage. Tomato and pepper plants need to be pulled and composted deep in the pile. Clean up all other plant material for a fresh start in the spring. Turning the soil over once will expose overwintering pests living in the soil to the colder temperatures and birds to eat. Try planting a cover crop for tilling in during the early spring. Have a soil test done to determine pH and nutrient levels. Lime can be applied in the fall to work all winter if needed. I plant spinach and cold tolerant lettuces in a bed under a hot cap. It is a frame of plumber’s pvc pipe made into a triangle and attached to 2 by 4’s then covered with painter’s plastic sheet stapled to the wood. We attached hinges to one side of the 2 x 4’s and to the side of the raised bed. Once the seeds germinate, their roots will grow as long as the temperatures are not below freezing. The small plants just hang out all December and January, waiting for the about the last week in February when the days get longer, to start growing into strong, large plants. Picking baby leaves begins in the middle of March. I love picking my own fresh salad while standing in a dusting of snow!

Other end of season garden chores include digging the tender bulbs, tubers and corms for storage in non-freezing temperature. Dig gladioli, dahlia tubers, canna and caladiums. They can be stored in damp peat moss, saw dust or sand. I keep mine in a wooden box in the hatchway  of my home. This area stays between 40 and 5o degrees F, perfect for these plants. I am even trying to save my ornamental sweet potato vine tubers. I will let you know how that turns out! As for herbaceous perennials, I cut them back to the ground to prepare for winter. This eliminates any disease from next year’s growth and hopefully removes overwintering insects, too. Cleaning up the foliage of this year exposes hiding places and homes of mice, chipmunks, moles and voles. Anything to rid my garden of these critters, I will try. Set old-fashioned snap mouse traps near any holes in the ground you find. I have caught mice, voles and chipmunks all in the same small area.

Happy End of the Garden Year,


The past two weekends haven’t been that conducive for outside work what with enough snow to build a little snowman two Sundays ago, and off and on downpours this past Saturday I have been hard pressed to find a good time for digging up my dahlias, cannas, gladioli, pineapple lilies, galtonias, Gloriosa lilies, begonias and a few other tender bulbs. Mostly I have been doing it in bits and pieces whenever I get a couple of hours of sunlight and free time.

Pineapple lily

Pineapple lily

Overwintering many species of tender bulbs is not difficult if you have the right storage conditions. Many like to be kept somewhere between 40 and 50 degrees F with moderate levels of humidity. This type of environment is sometimes more difficult to find in newer, energy efficient homes but it is not a problem in my old 1840’s cape with a dirt basement. I have several different microclimates there which I found by experimenting and use of a thermometer.

Some bulbs like tuberous begonias and caladiums should be brought in before a hard frost hits. Mine were brought into the basement a few weeks ago. I positioned them near a window and have been reducing the water they get so they will die back. Eventually I will cut back the dead foliage when it yellows but I leave the begonia tubers in their pots and keep them around 50 degrees F. I check them every couple of weeks and moisten them slightly if they seem dry.

The caladiums have been rotting on me the last two winters and I have had to buy new bulbs. I was thinking maybe it was just too cold where I had them so I am storing them around 60 degrees F this year to see if it makes a difference. The two I like the most are ‘Aaron’ and ‘White Christmas’ and I grow them in a large ceramic container in my white garden. Perhaps I should try growing them as a houseplant during the winter but maybe not until next year as the foliage has already yellowed.

Dahlias grow from tuberous roots which look a bit like sweet potatoes. Actually I believe some species of dahlias have been grown for their edible tubers. I think I will grow my dahlias for their glorious blooms and not food. After a few frosts, the dahlia plants blackened and I give them a week or more so they can translocate carbohydrates back to the tuberous roots. Then, the tops are cut back to about 2 or 3 inches above ground and I gently lift them using a spade or garden fork. The soil is shaken off, any earthworms lodged between the tubers picked out and then I leave them in the sun for an hour or more to dry slightly. I simply put the tuberous roots in buckets or large pots and lightly pack some used potting medium around them. Label the varieties. These buckets are staked on shelves and watered sparingly every 2 to 3 weeks.

Tuberous roots of dahlias

Tuberous roots of dahlias

The cannas are a bit more challenging to dig up because some of the tubers are huge and it is heavy digging in wet soil. These I just cut the foliage back, brush the soil off, store in large plastic crates around 40 to 50 degrees F. They are so large that they don’t dry up over the winter like some of the smaller bulbs.

Gladioli are also good storers but they are prepared for storing in two steps. First cut back the foliage to about 6 inches and dig up the corm. These I leave in a tray in the cellar for a few weeks until the foliage and any remaining soil dries. If you look at your corms you will see that last year’s corm has withered and died but is still attached to the bottom of the new corm. If your plants were happy you will also see lots of baby corms which are called cormels. When dry, simply twist off the old corm and send it to the compost pile. You could collect the cormels and start them indoors. They are so small you would need to plant them right after digging or they will dry out. After twisting off the old corm and then twisting off any remaining dead foliage, the corms are fine just stored in an old grapefruit mesh bag around 60 degrees F.

Because the weather was not that cooperative at the beginning of the growing season, many plants grown in our gardens got off to a slower start than normal. I love rudbeckias for their large, vibrant, strong-stemmed cut flowers. Each year I grow 2 or 3 varieties from seed and one new one I tried this year was ‘Cherry Brandy’. I admit I started the seeds a little late this past spring but the slugs and the rain didn’t help the little transplants much. Finally in September they came into their glory and I thought ‘Cherry Brandy’ was a real winner although I did notice some powdery mildew.

Cherry Brandy

Cherry Brandy

Until next time – think green thoughts!