Bulbs Forcing

Aftercare for Potted Spring Bulbs

Well, you’ve had your fun with potted spring bulbs: tulips, crocus, hyacinths, narcissus, etc. You bought them in bloom (or received them as a gift) and they added spring color and possibly fragrance to your home décor. But they’ve finished blooming and all that’s left are green leaves. What now?

Option 1: The Compost Awaits!

Well, you could simply toss them into the compost pile. That’s what the garden center or florist that sold them figures you’ll do. My suggestion is that tulips, harder to recuperate than the others, are probably best tossed after they bloom. They’re just not good rebloomers. But you can rebloom the others quite readily.

There’s no use trying to recuperate bulbs that were grown in water or in stones. Photo: parade.com

But do toss any bulbs that were grown in water or stones. That really weakens them and it’s best to put them out of their misery.

And you should certainly toss spring bulbs if you live in a mild climate (hardiness zones 9 to 12). Spring bulbs need a lengthy period of cold (down to freezing) to bloom again. If you just can’t offer that in any logical way, compost them!

Option 2: Save ’Em!

If you live in a temperate climate (hardiness zones 3 to 8), though, bulbs may well be worth saving. And here’s what to do:

1. Cut off the faded flowers. Letting them mature diverts energy away from next year’s flowering and you don’t want that!

Move the bulbs to the sunniest spot you have. Photo: jacobskitchengarden.wordpress.com

2. While they were in bloom, you were told to keep the bulbs in moderate light only and under cool conditions. That was to prolong blooming as much as possible, but that no longer applies. Now your goal is to boost next year’s performance, so place the pot in full sun (sun is needed to “recharge their batteries”). Since they’re no longer very attractive, this can be a spot where they won’t be noticeable.

3. Keep watering moderately and don’t hesitate to fertilize—use the product of your choice: bulbs aren’t picky!—to plump up the bulbs a bit. 

When the leaves start to yellow, the bulbs are saying. “Stop watering! I need to sleep!” Photo: http://www.agardenforthehouse.com

4. After a few weeks, the leaves will start to turn yellow. The bulbs are saying, “I’m tired and need to sleep.” Keep them in the sun as long as there is any green left, but stop watering. 

5. Narcissus, including daffodils and jonquils, keep their green leaves for a long time. If you’re tired of them, force dormancy after 6 weeks of growth by stopping any watering. That will encourage them to go dormant.

6. When the leaves go from yellow to brown, pull or cut them off. 

7. Next, dump out the pot and recuperate the bulbs. If they’ve divided, you may want to keep only the largest bulbs: the little ones are years from blooming. Or keep them all. That’s your choice.

Just plant the bulbs in the garden after you harvest them: you don’t have to wait until fall. Photo: http://www.frenchpropertiesdirect.com

8. Now, replant them outdoors. And I do mean “now”. I’m sure you’re saying, “But don’t I have to wait until fall?” Nope! I mean, you can if you want to, but why? The only reason spring-flowering bulbs are sold as loose bulbs in the fall is that it takes time to dig them up in the Dutch bulb fields, then inspect them, clean them, pack them and ship them. By then, September has arrived. But bulbs were designed to stay in the ground all year. Yours will be happier outdoors, in the ground. So plant them out in late spring or early summer.

9. The bulbs will want well-drained soil of just about any quality (although rich, light soil is best) in a sunny spot. A spot that is sunny in the spring, that is. They don’t mind shade in the three other seasons.

Plant the bulbs at a depth equal to three times their height and a spacing equal to three times their diameter. Ill.: Claire Tourigny, Les 1500 trucs du jardinier paresseux

10. Plant the bulbs at a depth equal to three times their height and a spacing equal to three times their diameter.

11. Don’t bother watering the bulbs as you finish planting: they’re dormant. 

Next spring, just watch them come into bloom! Photo: http://www.newhousenewhomenewlife.com

12. Now, cross your fingers and wait for next spring. With any luck at all, they’ll be up and blooming at their normal season. Again, tulips are hard to get to bloom again and may only produce leaves the following spring, but the others should bloom the following year. Or if not, certainly the second spring.


Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

7 comments on “Aftercare for Potted Spring Bulbs

  1. Thanks for the advice on bulbs. Do you have any thoughts on the spent Easter lilies that we have in our homes now? Love your blog.

  2. When you plant your bulbs in the garden, and they grow, flourish and bloom, once the flowers are faded, dead-head the plants but do not, under any circumstances, cut down the leaves, or worse still, tie them in knots!
    We have a very famous celebrity gardener here in the UK called Alan Tichmarsh, and I’ll never forget his comment, when advising people to let bulbs take their natural course… he was dead-set against tying the foliage in knots, commenting “your garden’s not a sock draw!” If you naturalise them in lawns, it’s also worth mowing round them until they’re fully faded. It won’t hurt the lawn, but it WILL help the bulbs!

    • I’d never tie leaves in a knot, but I used to mow around my daffodil leaves. Now I follow the suggestion of several narcissus experts that, after 6 weeks of growth, the leaves have done their job.

  3. camellianan

    Good article. When is the best time to transplant ( move) unground jonquils? Same as waiting to remove from pots? When leaves go brown?

    • You can move them when they’re green and growing: just be careful to damage the roots as little as possible. That said, it’s much easier to do when they are dormant!

  4. I go with option #2, even for forced bulbs. I know that forced bulbs probably will not survive, but I bury them to at least give them a chance.

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