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Planting and Caring for Flower Bulbs

A large variety of beautiful flowering perennial plants grow from any one of a large group of underground storage organs commonly referred to as "bulbs" but which actually includes four distinctly separate types of organs: true bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers. "Bulb"s of all such true types each include moisture and nutrients that allow them to survive long dormant periods, leading to new cycles of growth, and beautiful new blooms.

With a little basic information, and a little digging, anyone can grow plants from "bulbs" - plants that will produce beautiful flowers season after season, for many years.

1. What is included in the general term flower "bulb"?

A) True bulbs A true bulb is a shoot that has thicken leaf bases where nutrients are stored. A modified stem is at the base of the bulb and roots grow from the underside. Most true bulbs are extremely hardy as they are protected by a papery skin called a tunic. Some bulbs, such as lily bulbs, are minus the tunic and are thus easily damaged. Tulips, lilies, amaryllis, and daffodils are are grow from true bulbs.

B) Corms A corm is a short, swollen stem with one or more internodes, with a tunic covering that protects solid tissue, primarily starch-containing parenchyma cells, and moisture inside. While they look like true bulbs, internally they are thus very different. Gladiolus and crocus are the post common plants that grow from corms.

C) Rhizomes Rhizomes are underground stems that send out roots and shoots from their nodes. Day lilies and dahlias are popular flowers that come from rhizomes.

D) Tubers Tubers form from roots, producing shoots that grow into stems and leaves on one side, and new roots on the reverse side. Some tubers, such as those of tuberous begonias, live for lengthy periods, but some survive only until the plants are in full bloom, at which point the tuber shrivels up into a husk. Bearded iris, African lily and canna are examples of flowers that grown from tubers.

From here on, we will refer to all of these merely as flower bulbs, or just as bulbs.

2. When do plants grow from bulbs and when should they be planted?

Some bulbous pants should be planted in the fall or early winter to bloom in spring because they require a long period of cool temperatures to spark the biochemical process that causes them to flower. Bulbs that should be planted in the fall include the following:
  • Allium
  • Amaryllis
  • Crocus
  • Daffodils
  • Hyacinth
  • Iris
  • Paperwhite
  • Tulips
Others bulbous plants that should instead be planted in the spring include the following:
  • Begonia
  • Caladium
  • Calla lily
  • Canna
  • Crocosmia
  • Dahlia
  • Elephant Ear
  • Gladiolus
  • Shamrock
3. Basic Bulb Care

A) Watering During their growing season, all bulbs need sufficient water. If rainfall is less than an inch per week, then additional watering will be essential. As bulb roots generally grow deep, water should penetrate a foot or so into the ground. Once the foliage form bulbous plants ripens, then added water should be stopped.

B) Fertilizing Bulbs will do better, producing more abundant and healthy flowers with added nutrition during their growing periods. There are many fertilizers made specifically for the needs of different classes of bulbs, and and they should be added to the soil with care to follow the specific instructions provided.

C) Pruning and Deadheading If spent flowers are allowed to remain attached to the plant, the plant's energy will be directed to producing seeds. So, once flowers begin to collapse, they should be snipped off so that all energy will be directed to root and bulb development.However, some types of bulbs, such as grape hyacinth and Spanish bluebells self-sow from seed formation, so the flowers of these plants should not be removed so that seed heads may develop.

After bulbs finish blooming, especially with spring-blooming bulbs, leave ripening foliage intact for a couple of months or so, until it changes color for its original green, when it can be snipped off. But, do not mulch over it, as that deprives the plant of needed sunlight.

D) Staking Unless your garden is in a very windy or rainy area when stalks are readily whipped about and broken, only very tall plants from bulbs should be staked. This would include gladiolus, lilies, and dahlias. For dahlias, tomato cages generally work better than traditional flower stakes.

4. Bulbs in Winter

In areas of temperate climate where winters are seldom harsh, such as in Southern California and Florida, bulbs may safely remain in the ground year round. But, where winters produce constant freezing temperatures, bulbs should be lifted and stored, to be replanted in springtime.

This is especially true for delicate bulbs such as begonia hybrids, caladium, and dahlia. Within a week or two of frost killing off the foliage, such bulbs should be dug up and stored for the winter. Any decayed or severely damaged bulbs should be discarded.

Proper storage methods differ by the type of bulb. Hardy, tunic-covered true bulbs and corms should be left to dry out for a few days or a week, then loose stems removed, and then placed in an onion bag and stored in a cool, dry place where temperatures do not drop below 45º F. Rhizomes and tubers that have more moisture on the inside and that have soft, unprotected skin are more susceptible to decay while being stored. They should be allowed to dry out for a couple of days in a dry, shady location, followed then by the removal of any stalks to within four inches or so about the bulb. Any remaining soil should also be removed with a brush. They should then be stored in a single lawyer in a cardboard box, and then covered with wood chips or a vermiculite. The box should be stored in a dry area when temperatures are no less than 45º F.

It is a good idea to check your bulks regularly and to discard any that may be starting to decay, and never, ever use plastic bags to store bulbs, as they trap moisture inside that can cause a quick demise of your precious bulbs.

With a little care, a beautiful, endearing garden with myriad colorful plants can easily be maintained with selections of flower bulbs.

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