Gardening Help FAQs

Here are answers to some of the most common questions we receive about garden plants. You will find concise information on general gardening techniques as well as plant selection and care. For detailed information on specific plant pests and problems refer to our Common Garden Pests and Problems page.

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Horticulture Questions and Answers

How do I care for my spring-flowering bulbs?

Hardy spring bulbs are some of the most colorful plants in the garden and among the earliest to flower. The season begins in February with snowdrops and winter aconites followed by crocuses, scillas, chionodoxas, and daffodils in March; hyacinths and tulips in April. It is always sad to see the display fade but, that burst of color will be welcomed next season and here are a few tips to follow which will ensure that the bulbs are in good shape for next year's show.

The first thing to recognize is that what happens between now and when the foliage yellows in early to mid-summer determines the next seasons flower crop. This is the time when the buds are being set and new bulb offsets are growing. Now is a good time to add nutrients to support bulb growth. This can be done by broadcasting a granular fertilizer like 5-10-5 or 5-10-10 at the rate of 2 pounds per 100 square feet across the bed. If your plantings are scattered, this works out to about 1 to 2 table spoons per plant sprinkled around the clump. Use the higher rate for old and larger clumps.

Removing the seed pods after the flowers fade will have a positive effect upon new bulb formation and bud set. This is especially true of daffodils and tulips. Failure to do this will result in smaller bulbs because the seed pods will continue to develop and set seed. This requires energy reserves which other wise would go into bulb growth.

Then, there is always the question of what to do with the foliage. The temptation for many is to bunch the leaves with a rubber band or string into a nice tidy bundle. Alternatively, some people will cut the foliage back to the ground. Both of these practices will reduce bulb development and flower formation next season. Instead, the foliage should be allowed to sprawl out to collect as much sunlight as possible. Daffodils are sensitive to premature leaf removal and their should be a least 4 to 6 leaves per bunch to support bulb growth. The same follows for tulips, however, they are less sensitive. So as long as you leave the bottom two leaves intact, new bulbs produced will develop to normal size. So, be patient to cut the foliage back until signs of leaf yellowing. Generally, tulips can be cut back in mid-June while daffodils often take a month longer. At this time cut the leaves back to the ground level and compost the leaf material.

Most bulbs flower very well in the first year regardless of where they are planted. This is because the storage reserves are already in place for the first year's growth. The second year will be a reflection of the new planting site conditions. If flower production is poor in subsequent years, this may be due age. Older clumps that have become overgrown will produce small flowers and stems because of crowding. Tulips fit this pattern more so than daffodils and it is recommended to divide tulip plantings every 3 to 4 years. If you have noticed a real decline in tulip flowers, it may be better to discard them and start over because they have a tendency to be less showy after the first two years of growth. Daffodils can often go several years without much concern.

In either case, the remedy is to dig the clumps of bulbs and divide. This is commonly done in the fall. However, anytime after the foliage has turned yellow, the bulbs could be lifted from the soil. If you replant, take the time to improve the bed by adding organic matter such as leaf compost or aged manure at the rate of 2 to 3 bushels per 100 square feet. This should be tilled or worked into the soil to a depth of about 8 inches along with one pound of complete fertilizer. Bulbs set in this way will begin to develop a new root system through the summer, fall and winter. If you are not ready to prepare the bed immediately, the bulbs can be lifted and air dried in a cool place like a garage or basement area until fall planting preferably prior to November 1.