I have been writing a weekly horticulture column for the French-language newspaper Le Soleil de Québec for 37 years. I thought you might like to check out some of these articles from way back in time. I haven’t read them in all these years, so this will be a discovery for both you and for me! Since gardening techniques and information have evolved over time, I’ve had to add a few notes. It’s a good opportunity to see how the field has evolved in recent decades and also to debunk some stubborn horticultural myths!
After having brightened up our flower beds for several months, spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips, narcissus, hyacinths, crocuses, etc., are now in serious decline. Their flowers are long gone, only leaves remain. . .and even the latter are starting to look more than a bit tired.
What do you need to do so that they give you such a striking show of bloom again next spring?
Well, the worst mistake you could make at this time would be to cut off their foliage while it’s still green on the pretext that it’s “getting a ratty.” That may well be true, but it’s important to understand that a bulbous plant absorbs all its energy through its leaves. If you remove the leaves, the bulb, well hidden under the ground, won’t be able to store any further reserves for next year. . . and without those reserves, there will be no flowers! It’s important to keep the foliage until it withers on its own, which is normally in June into July.
Only then can you cut it back.
However, what you can do is deadhead, that is, remove the seed capsule that forms at the end of the flower stalk. If you leave the capsule to continue maturing, the plant will put too much energy into making seeds and not enough into building up a strong bulb. By removing it, more of the sun’s energy will go into the bulb, improving flowering the following year.
To deadhead, just pinch or clip the capsule it off at its base, thus beheading the flower stalk. Do leave the flower stalk standing, though. As long as it’s green, it’s carrying out photosynthesis, and therefore helping to capture more solar energy. (Editor’s note: If I had to write this article in 2022, I would only have only insisted on the removal of tulip seed capsules. This action seems to have little or no importance for other genera: hyacinths, narcissus, snowdrops, etc.)
In order that next year’s bulb be is as big as possible—and therefore bloom more solidly—, apply a complete, organic fertilizer, one rich in phosphorus and potash (respectively the second and the third of the three numbers on the label, the first being nitrogen). Do that after the flowers have faded but while the leaves are still green. (Editor’s note: We now know that the actual proportion of minerals in a fertilizer [their NPK content] is of relatively little importance as long as the minerals are present. The suggestion of applying a complete organic fertilizer would have been quite sufficient. I needn’t have specified a special need for phosphorous and potash.)
Generally speaking, the foliage of spring bulbs has no appeal once the flowers fade. If you find that it spoils the appearance of your garden, you have three choices: camouflage it, move it or remove it.
You can easily camouflage the foliage by planting more visible plants around it: annuals, perennials, etc. If you use tall plants, you can in fact hide the foliage of the bulbs completely. The foliage remains visible if you use low-growing plants. . . but if they are very floriferous, you really won’t notice the yellowing foliage of the bulbs. Your eyes will be attracted by the color of the neighboring flowers. In this case, just leave the bulbs in the ground. They’ll bloom again next year in the same place.
Move the Bulbs Somewhere Else
The second choice is to move the bulbs. This involves carefully digging them up, keeping as many roots as possible, and replanting them elsewhere, in a less visible place. Ideally, move directly to their new permanent home. Water well when transplanting to facilitate their recovery.
If you move the bulbs to a temporary spot, you’ll have to transplant them a second time, when the foliage does die away in July. If so, just dig up the bulbs, then replant them in a flower bed or elsewhere. You do not have to store them over the summer the basement or tool shed as used to be recommended. Bulbs are always much happier in the ground than on a rack!
The third option is to simply remove the foliage while it’s still green. This way the bulb will either die or be so weak next year that it won’t be able to bloom. Essentially, you’ll be treating the bulb as if it were an annual flower. . . and getting rid of it.
But What If Blooming Decreases?
Over time, some bulbs start to flower less. This is especially the case with tulips. Many tulips are nearly one-shot wonders: they bloom best the first spring, less with smaller flowers the second spring, even less with even smaller flowers the third.
This decline is caused by inadequate growing conditions (unlike most other spring bulbs, tulips like to spend the summer baking in hot, dry soil. Imagine their reaction when they find themselves in an irrigated flower bed, with its constantly moist soil!)
However, root competition between bulbs is also a factor, as they divide at their base into more numerous bulblets each year. In this case, dig up the bulbs as the leaves fade, then divide them, saving only the larger bulbs for the border. You can either compost the small bulbs or replant them in an inconspicuous place. Plant them right away: there is no need to store them dry until fall. Small bulbs won’t flower the following year, but maybe in two or three years.
Or save yourself all the complications and plant perennial tulips. They do come back year after year in appropriate climates.
There you have it! It takes so little effort to brighten up your spring flowerbeds at a time of year when your neighbor’s gardens are still empty! It’s no surprise that spring-flowering bulbs are so popular in home gardens!