In my post Containers, Bulbs, and Gnats, I talked about the trials and tribulations I experienced in growing my first bulbs in my patio garden. Through trial and error I was able to learn about the particular needs of certain flowers like dahlias, which I discuss in Flowers Galore in Patio Paradise, and pest control. This winter was my first experience in storing bulbs, and I didn’t want to take a chance that the bulbs I had worked so hard to grow last spring and summer wouldn’t come back. I delved into the anatomy of the bulbs I grew as well as the steps needed to properly store bulbs for a successful spring.
In order to understand the importance of storing bulbs, I learned I had to understand its purpose and anatomy. There are many different kinds of bulbs like “true bulbs,” corms, tubers, tuberous roots, rhizomes, and fleshy roots. A bulb’s purpose is to store food and water for the plant during winter or dry season as the plant completes its life cycle. The bulbs I have been planting are “true bulbs,” corms, and tubers. Each kind of bulb has different anatomy.
There are 5 parts of a true (tunicate or imbricate) bulb that help it complete its life cycle: roots, basal stem, scales, tunic, and flower bud (shoot). Imbricate bulbs don’t have a tunic. All of these parts are essential to the growth of a bulb, the health of the flower, and the ability of the bulb to store energy for the cycle to start again in
the spring. The basal stem is a thin, flat disc that is essentially a compressed stem. The roots grow from once the bulb is planted. Growing out from the top of the basal stem are the scales which are modified leaves that store food and energy the plant has collected during the growing season. As the plant grows, the old scale leaves move outward and form the dried papery covering of the new bulb, which is called the tunic. In the center of the bulb is the flower bud, which will be used to store more energy for when the bulb
goes dormant in times of drought or during the winter. Corms have similar anatomy only they do not have visible storage rings or scales. Tubers are very different from true bulbs and corms in that they do not have scales, tunics, or basal plates. They contain only the tuberous body, roots, and plant buds.
No matter the bulb, at the end of the growing season, the flower and foliage die back as the bulb goes dormant and stores its energy to start the cycle over. Depending on the type of garden you have, you can keep your bulbs in the ground to come back the next year or, if you like to rotate your bulbs and flowers throughout the growing season, pulling your bulbs will allow you to continue using your soil for new plant rotations or to better turn and replenish it. It will also give you the ability to assess the health of your bulbs and divide them if necessary.
How to Store Your Bulbs
The first thing you will need to do is dig up your bulbs at the end of your plant’s growing season. You’ll know when to dig your bulbs up once the foliage begins to turn yellow and die back. Once this happens, the bulb has replenished its food stores and is going dormant. Very carefully dig through the soil where your bulbs are planted. It’s important that you’re gentle with bulbs as damaging them opens them to bacterial and fungal disease as well as pests.
Prepping your bulbs to be stored is the most important step other than choosing the right medium to store them in. Generally, not all bulbs should be
cleaned water since the they tend to retain it, but some bulbs like the tuberous dahlia
can be washed gently. Other bulbs like gladiolus corms and tulips should be pulled from the ground with greenery attached and left to “cure” away from the sun. If you want to know more about curing, you should definitely check out this WikiHow. It was very helpful in teaching me how to save my tulips. After about a week of curing, cut away excess dried foliage from the bulbs and check them for any damaged, dead or decaying bulbs and discard them. If you store these dying bits with the healthy bulbs then it could cause the whole batch to rot and go bad. Once you’ve cured and picked through your bulbs you’re ready to store them!
This past winter I stored my bulbs in an Amazon box, wrapped each kind of bulb in a different piece of scrap cloth, and kept them in my closet. I checked them every few months to make sure they hadn’t molded and threw away the bulbs that had gone bad. After replanting my bulbs, I began reading about ways to create a better storage system so I don’t have to lose any bulbs to rot or mold.
I’ve learned that my instinct to keep my bulbs in a cardboard box was dead on. They need air flow in order to prevent rot and molding. Even though the plant is dormant they need to “breathe.” However, wrapping the bulbs in scrap cloth was not quite as spot on. The cloth is fairly stifling and retains moisture, which is what led to my mold problem. So this winter I’ll try a medium like wood shavings or peat moss to store my bulbs. According to the DIY Network another good tip for preventing rot is to “not allow the bulbs to touch [and] provide loose cover with your chosen packing medium.” All in all, the keys to successful storage are 1) a dry environment and 2) air flow, which means no over crowding bulbs in your box and no stifling packing mediums. If you’re interested in learning more in depth about storing your bulbs, I recommend the University of Minnesota’s article on “Storing tender bulbs and bulblike structures.” It also includes tips for storing specific bulb species such as freesia, gladiolus, calla lily, and dahlias.
Planting your stored bulbs in the spring is just like planting bulbs from the store: remove from their package and plant during the planting season, which often includes 6 to 8 weeks of cold exposure to encourage blooms in the spring.
Overall, my bulb overwintering was a success. All of the bulbs I planted have come up, but only the hyacinths have flowered. The tulips and muscari are very leafy, but with continued watering, fertilizing and sunlight the these plants will store more energy so they can grow and flower next spring. For my next try I’ll plant my bulbs sooner so they’re exposed to more winter weather. I can’t say I’m willing to store them in the fridge.
Do you have questions about your bulbs? your plant babies? Are you having trouble with pests, root rot, or finding the right planter? Are you excited about learning more about house plants, cacti, succulents, or container gardens? Leave a comment below or feel free to contact The Garden Generalist. I would love to hear from you!
Currently in the works for The Garden Generalist are posts about 5 botanic gardens which include a visit to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens’ Orchid Daze, a tour of the US Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., and Saguaro National Park!