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Bulbs in package, CQuish photo

If, like me, you are a gardener of good intentions, you probably have a few bags of spring flowering bulbs you never got around to planting. Well it is not too late! They can be planted as long as the ground is not frozen. It may not be as comfortable or enjoyable digging the holes in December as it would have been in early October, but better late than never. Bulbs not planted will not bloom.

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Tulip bulbs, plant roots down, point up. CQuish photo

Daffodils, tulips, crocus, hyacinth and scilla are commonly sold at garden centers, big box stores and through catalogs. Other species are available and all will need to be planted, and then experience a cold period of six to ten weeks to signal the bulb to bloom when the soil warms again in the spring. If the bulbs are not planted until next March or April, they will not bloom that year as they did not receive their needed chilling period. So get them in the ground now before we have to shovel snow.

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Crocus bulbs showing a little growth from the top, and roots from the knobby bottom. CQuish photo.

Larger bulbs such as daffodils and hyacinth should be planted four to six inches deep, or two to three times their height.  Smaller bulbs of crocus and scilla go two to three inches deep into the soil. Add a teaspoon of bone meal into the planting hole mixing it into the soil in the bottom of the hole. Then place the bulb in the hole, pointed side up and flat side down. The roots will grow out of the flatter side and grow down; the leaves and stem will grow from the pointed end and reach up. If you can’t tell which end should be up, lay it on its side and each will find their way where they should be.

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Scilla bulbs, notice the roots on the flat bottom. CQuish photo

Bulbs can be planted in pots in potting medium for forcing indoors, too. They will still need the about ten weeks of chilling period at 40 to 45 degrees F. They can be kept out doors in an unheated shed or porch, or placed in a refrigerator which does contain any fruit. Fruit gives off ethylene gas as it ripens which will retard or kill the growing flower inside the bulb. After the allotted time, bring out the pot and all to be placed in a bright window for the warmth of the house and light to signal the bulbs to grow. This provides a nice bit of spring in late winter inside the house. After they bloom, and later in the spring, these bulbs can be replanted outside.

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Potted daffodils, photo WS.edu

Annual care for bulbs planted outside is to leave the foliage on the plant. The leaves are the food factory for the bulb. Leaves are where photosynthesis happens, taking energy from the sun to convert it into carbohydrates to be stored in the bulb. If the leaves are green, let them be. Only remove them after they have yellowed and turned brown. Do not braid or wrap the leaves together either. The leaf is like a solar plate and must access the sunrays, which it cannot do if wrapped up. Flower stems should be trimmed off so energy is not wasted making a seed. Bulb beds can be fertilized after all foliage has turned brown. Fertilizing before flowering can cause disease to attack the bulb.

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Daffodil, CQuish photo

-Carol Quish

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  

http://www.smith.edu/garden/home.html.

 Grow good!

Dawn