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Over the Garden Fence

Give back to your spring flowering bulbs

Gardeners have really enjoyed the great bloom show from our spring flowering bulbs in the past few weeks. No matter how bad the winter weather seems to get or how late we have a frost or snow, spring bulbs always seem to pull through for us.

What we should not do

It is now our turn to give back so those blooms will return in 2022. It all starts with us doing nothing. Let the foliage be; do not cut it down, cut it in half, or thirds even, and do not braid the bulb foliage. It is there to resupply the bulb with energy to generate the flower initials for next year and grow the bulb in size. That bulb also will create bulblets (think daffodils) to enlarge the planting without us having to.

What we should do

You can provide some nutrition in the form of organic matter or fertilizer. This replenishes the needed nutrients to the soil so the bulb will benefit. Organic matter also will help condition the soil, making it more friable, providing more soil moisture capacity. Plus, later it will make it easier for us to dig and plant more bulbs.

If a flower was pollenated and a seed head begins to form, just prune the seed head away so the energy is redirected back into the bulb.

Allow the bulb foliage to remain green until it naturally yellows and eventually browns. Once browned, it should pull away very easily from the bulb, which is several inches below the surface. Those browns can be added the compost bin or pile. (Watch this video demonstration.)

What we can do later

If you have begun to notice lots of foliage compared to bloom show, it is time to divide and reset the bulbs. Daffodils are again the best example. Bulbs need their own space to grow and expand so flower initials can be created. Gardeners may not see a return on their time investment the very next year, but after that, the bloom show really begins.

You can dig the bulbs and reset immediately, or you can let them dry down in a cool, shady location to plant in the not-to-distant future. If replanting in the same spot without expanding the bed, you will have extra bulbs that need a new location in the yard or can donate to family or neighbors. If you plan to share them, rinse the dirt off first, then dry them, and store them until late summer before distribution.

When you have them dug up, add generous amounts of organic matter back into the bed before replanting. At the same time, adding bulb food (usually higher in phosphorus) helps with transplanting and establishment. To settle the soil around the bulbs, water thoroughly a couple of times – once when first reset and again in a couple of weeks.

About the author: Richard Hentschel’s expertise extends across several subject areas with specialties in lawn care, fruit tree production, woody ornamentals, and home and community gardening. During his 45-year career in horticulture and agriculture, Hentschel became a well-known and respected expert for commercial and homeowner audiences, industry organizations, and media. He retired from University of Illinois Extension in April 2022 with nearly 30 years of service as a Horticulture Specialist and Educator in northern Illinois.