Flowering Bulbs – Lifting, Separating and Storing

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I was very pleased with the display of flowering bulbs in my new terraced garden beds this year; the ‘late’ tulips started ‘early’ in April and my succession planning saw the garden brightened with various alliums, gladioli and irises right through until mid-August. Allium Giganteum flowers are so majestic that even when they’ve become dried out mega-lollipops they continue to provide interesting shapes, casting long late-evening shadows across the lawn at sunset. However, now that all the flowering bulbs are finished and September is here it’s time to lift them for evaluation and storage.

Energy Saving

In the case of my tulips I was very careful not to let the flower heads go to seed and to let the leaves die back naturally. Yes this did mean that there were a few weeks of very unsightly foliage across the garden but it’s important to do this for two reasons:

  1. If tulips aren’t deadheaded early on they put energy into seed generation instead of storing for the following year’s flowers.
  2. The foliage needs to gather as much sunlight as possible to store for the following spring and to develop smaller bulbs (which we call offsets).

MrsGrow’s Cut Tulips

I was also very careful to ensure that where tulip flowers were cut for household displays (reluctantly for MrsGrow), the leaves were not included. Again if you cut the leaves and the flower stem together you’re almost guaranteeing yourself a no-show flower the following year because the leaves won’t be able to feed the bulb. You may get some leaves the following spring but they’ll be busy gathering the sun’s rays to store energy for the year after that! This is true even with perennial varieties of tulip – these varieties are more likely to flower again and again (which is why I prefer them from a return on investment perspective) but they still need stored energy.

My 2017 Bulb Choices

The vast majority of the bulbs I planted last autumn in my terraced beds (each with multi-purpose compost below and above) were perennial bulbs. Here I list them in the order in which they flowered, photos beneath:

  • Late Tulips (Queen of Night, Tulip Maureen, Tulip Renown) – perennial varieties (April/May)
  • Allium Purple Sensation (May/June)
  • Dutch Iris Purple Sensation (May/June)
  • Gladiolus communis subsp. Byzantinus (perennial gladioli) (May/June)
  • Allium Mount Everest (May/June)
  • Allium Giganteum (July/August)
  • Allium Sphaerocephalon (Drumsticks) (July/August)

Lifting & Separating Bulbs

Bulbs Offsets

Bulb vs Offsets

Theoretically I could have let all of these bulbs stay put because being perennial bulbs they should all return in 2018. However, the tulip and allium drumstick bulbs will have produced offsets (those small bulbs you find attached to a main bulb) and I don’t particularly want those coming up next year to crowd the border (without flowering). In all likelihood it will take 2-4 years for the offset bulbs to become mature enough to flower, so I prefer to remove them, relocate them to the allotment and let them mature there. Once mature I can bring them back or pot them up for displays.

Lifting bulbs in the autumn gives me an opportunity to remove any rotten or damaged bulbs, possibly even preventing some bulbs from going on to rot after all the rain we’ve had in August. It’s also an ideal time to apply manure to the beds to help feed the bulbs next year, the soil in my new beds is far from ideal in terms of its existing organic nutrient content and needs help.

allium sphaerocephalon (drumsticks)

allium sphaerocephalon (drumsticks)

Most of all, bulb lifting allows me to buy in new stock where needed and who doesn’t enjoy buying bulbs?! I can add some fresh ideas to the beds for 2018 which makes it all the more exciting and improves the chances of a stunning display. I don’t particular want the exact same display next year (I shall be adding a third terrace bed) gardening is about change and keeping things fresh with surprises so bulb lifting is for me a necessity.

Storing Bulbs

Once lifted my bulbs are left for a couple of days to dry off in the greenhouse (out of direct sunlight) and are then stored wrapped in newspaper at my office until mid-November when I shall replant them. The office is the ideal place for me to keep bulbs because that’s where all my secret horticultural deliveries go… to stop MrsGrow asking questions about the household food budget vs my bulb plans!

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About Author

Matt Peskett is GrowLikeGrandad (if you want to know why read 'About the Editor). He has a few 'heavy clay' allotments and is Chairman of the Dorking Allotment Holders Association (DAHA). Matt also has a medium sized 'sandy soil' hillside garden (Italian terrace designed) and enjoys photography - especially nature. Matt takes inspiration from gardens like Hidcote and Great Dixter and enjoys watching anything on TV presented by Monty Don or Louis Theroux.

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