There are many signs of spring, but none more exciting to gardeners than the appearance of green shoots from spring bulbs. Crocus often poke out first, then followed by a flush of daffodils, allium, tulips and lilies.
For Rachel Rhodes, University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener coordinator for Queen Anne’s County, it’s daffodils that fill her with the spring spirit.
“For me, that’s the quintessential spring bloom,” she said. “It’s like ‘It’s here, it’s Easter, let’s get planting. All the things.’”
But she quickly admits all the spring bulbs are seasonal superstars, ushering in the planting season and other anticipated gardening activities.
“It’s the first flash of color for spring,” she said.
After they bloom, for some, there’s the inclination to dig up the bulbs and move them or store them for fall replant.
But Rhodes and others said it’s best to wait until the plant’s foliage dies back before uprooting them.
As the foliage dries out and withers, the bulb pulls nutrients back in helping it to stay healthy.
She also suggests gardeners don’t braid, tie up or cut back the leaves either as it tends to reduce the size of the bulbs.
Figure on waiting about six weeks after the bloom period before digging any up.
Spring-blooming bulbs such as daffodils, tulips and crocuses spend the winter in dormancy. According to Master Gardeners, this resting period comes after months of developing strong roots and making and storing food to produce flowers for the next year. The leaves and flower buds form at the center of the bulb, where the plant stores its food. Warming soil signals the bulbs to start sending up the leaves and eventually the flower buds.
Of course, if the weather turns cold again, that slows down the process until conditions are right again.
If you get fewer flowers than expected in the spring, it may not be because of erratic winter weather.
It could be a sign that you need to divide your bulbs. Bulbs reproduce by forming new bulbs, called offsets, at their base, and when they get overcrowded, they don’t produce as many flowers.
Fewer flowers could also mean that the bulbs were not able to store enough food last year, either because the plant didn’t get enough sun or because the leaves were removed too soon.
Consider relocating your bulbs if they are in too much shade, and wherever they are, be sure to allow the leaves to mature, turn yellow and die back, before removing them.
Once removed, Rhodes said it’s best to store bulbs in a cool dry place, but not to refrigerate them.
She said she prefers to recycle a mesh bag that firstcarried home oranges or onions from the grocery store.
“Then you just hang them up in a cool dry place,” Rhodes said.
She added of all the springs bulbs, tulips may need annual digging to keep up their quality, and any bulbs in an undesirable spot in the garden or where they have grown to thick can be dug up, but not until the bloomed foliage has fully died.
When time comes to replant, Rhodes said the bulb’s size is a key determinant of how deep it should be planted.
She suggests following recommendations from Master Gardners or any instructions on the bulb package.
Most bulbs need full sunshine, so Master Gardeners suggest selecting a planting site that will provide at least five to six hours of direct sunlight a day.
Bulbs left in the ground year after year should have eight to 10 hours of daily sunlight for good flowering.
“They don’t like wet feet,” Rhodes said, “they like a nice dry seed bed,” so adequate drainage is an important consideration, as most bulb plants will rot easily if overwatered or planted in wet areas.
Add fertilizer and cover with a layer of soil to ensure the bulbs do not contact the fertilizers directly. Set bulb upright in planting hole and cover with amended soil.
For all their spring beauty, lilies are toxic to animals if eaten. That can be a good deterrent for unwanted wildlife but may not be good for pets.
“That’s something to keep in mind if you have a curious puppy or even and outdoor cat,” Rhodes said.
Intermixing multiple kinds of bulbs can also keep animals from grazing off foliage and bring a coloful variety to the landscape, Rhodes added.
Late season bulb sales can be an attractive deal for bargain garden shoppers but Rhodes said it’s important to evaluate their quality before pulling the trigger and buying any. Check them for firmness, avoid bulbs with blemishes which could introduce disease, she said.
“It should be like a firm onion,” she said.
If, for whatever reason you don’t get bulbs replanted in the late summer or fall timeframe, they can still go in the ground if they are stored well going into the following spring. The drawback is you won’t get a bloom that spring.
“They need that cold time to be able to bloom,” Rhodes said.
That takes patience, but for bulb-loving gardeners, it’s often worth the wait.