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Spring Flowers Need Their Beauty Sleep
by Netherlands Flower Bulb Association
October 30, 2006

Each year, a certain percentage of busy gardeners belatedly realize that the flower bulbs they bought in September or October have not yet been planted -- and they are left wondering, guiltily, what to do with the little rascals.

If this sounds familiar, take heart. For one thing, it may not be as late as you think.

Rule #1: When in doubt, plant the bulbs. If bulbs should be planted in October in your area and you’re looking at unplanted bulbs in December or January – get them in the ground. It’s not optimal but it’s certainly not impossible. Plant the bulbs if it’s at all possible to dig in the ground (look for mulched beds which don’t freeze as quickly). Bulbs are programmed by nature to “want” to grow and late-planted bulbs generally still grow and flower, though not always at peak performance.

However, if you’re looking at unplanted spring-flowering bulbs in March or April, you’re probably out of luck.

The reason is simple. Though flower bulbs look like nothing more than brown lumps, they are actually living things. Nestled inside each is a tiny embryonic flower complete with leaves, surrounded by layers of plant food ready to nourish the bulb to bloom. All that a spring-flowering bulb needs is to be planted in a somewhat timely manner for rooting and a period of sustained cold to activate a bio-chemical process that stimulates it to send forth its glorious spring blooms.

Spring bulbs? Summer bulbs?
Flower bulbs fall into two main categories: spring-blooming and summer-blooming bulbs. Spring bloomers include tulips, irises, crocuses, narcissi (daffodils), snowdrops, grape hyacinths, hyacinths, alliums, and a whole lot more. Summer bloomers include gladioli, dahlias, freesia, canna, begonias, nerines, and others.

What makes them different? Spring bloomers are known as “hardy” bulbs, programmed by nature to need a cold period before they can bloom. Not only can they survive the cold, they need it. That’s why they must be planted in fall. Fall planting allows bulbs time to root, then settle in for a long, cold “beauty sleep” prior to spring growth. For tulips, for example, this translates to 12 to 16 weeks in the dark with a sustained soil temperature below 50° F. In most areas, the optimal planting time is when autumn night-time temperatures drop down to the 40° to 50° range.

Most summer bloomers, on the other hand, are not hardy – and cannot survive sustained temperatures so low. They are known as “tender” bulbs. Summer-flowering bulbs are available for sale in spring and should be planted outdoors after the local threat of frost is past. In the fall, many people dig up summer bulbs to store them indoors in a cool dry place over the winter for planting again the following summer.

Among the exceptions: lilies! These summer bloomers are winter-hardy perennials and can be planted in either spring or fall.

The Squeeze Test
About those bulbs you forgot to plant in fall: The best way to tell if they are still viable is to gently squeeze them. If they are firm, not dry or spongy, they are probably still okay – though no guarantees. Plant them immediately (if there’s any chance, they’ll grow). After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If the ground is too hard to work, plant the bulbs in pots and keep them in a cool unheated area with temperatures between 38°F and 50° F – a home refrigerator works just fine. Water them – and keep the soil moist but never soggy. After eight or more weeks (depending on the bulb type), bring a few pots into the warmth each week to initiate growth indoors. Or, once spring begins to warm things up, move the pots outdoors to bloom.

Flower bulbs are among the easiest plants to grow successfully. But that ease comes with a few caveats. Planting in a timely manner is one of them.


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