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Autumn: Bulbs in, bulbs out

Remember those bulbs you ordered from catalogues months ago? The crocuses, irises, and daffodils? Well, they are starting to arrive now and it’s time to plant them during the month of October. And if it isn’t enough to put the garden to bed, to plant the garlic and those spring-flowering bulbs, you have the added chore of digging some bulbs up to put into storage. Wait—did you say dig some up? Oh, yes—because along with planting bulbs, it is soon time to dig up the dahlias, canna lilies, calla lilies, and gladioli.  

Let’s start with planting. Ideally, the bulbs of plants that will flower in the early spring (crocus, daffodil, snowdrop, etc.) go in about six weeks before the first frost. When that will occur is, of course, anyone’s guess, but in the last twenty years or so, that date keeps getting pushed back more and more as the planet warms. [The UGJ generally goes with October 15 as first frost date in upstate New York.—Ed.] 

Different kinds of bulbs go in at different soil depths, but a frequently mentioned rule of thumb is to dig a hole two to three times as deep as the bulb’s height. However, this is just a general guideline, as tulips do best when planted at a depth of 8 inches, hyacinths at 5 to 6 inches, and crocuses at 3 to 4 inches. Large allium bulbs prefer a depth of 8 inches, while small specimens of the same should be at 2 inches. And don’t forget that the pointy end of the bulbs faces upward when placed into the hole.

As spring-blooming bulbs go in, the summer-flowering ones need to be dug up and put into storage until next year. These include dahlia, gladiolus, some species of lilies, and elephant ear (technically, some of these “bulbs” are corms, rhizomes, or tubers but, from a practical point of view, the terminology is of no consequence). These plants originated in warmer areas of the world and they are unable to survive the cold winter conditions found in our area. Once they are carefully dug up, after the first frost kills back their foliage, the bulbs are stored in well-aerated mesh bags or paper sacks in such a way that they are not crowded together. A temperature regime of around 50° F and darkness are recommended for storage. That is because these bulbs are living organisms whose cells continue to respire and produce moisture that rot fungi thrive on. Some gardening websites recommend washing the soil off the bulbs prior to drying and storage, but I don’t do this. While I do shake the excess soil off the bulbs, I believe that washing is unnecessary. It removes some of the protective coating of outer plant tissue, as well as the soil particles containing beneficial microbes that are antagonists of rot fungi and bacteria. 

Ok, it’s time to go! Let’s start digging. Come next year, all the hard work we put in now will be rewarded by the beautiful flowers these plants will produce. 

Steven Jakobi is an Allegany County Master Gardener volunteer. 

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