Dealing With Bulb Foliage
Spring bulb displays are so bold and beautiful that it’s tempting to pack the beds and borders with them. However, most are not especially good mixers, wanting a lengthy period of ripening and summer drought to restore their bloom power. Foliage ripening can be an issue, since some spring bloomers produce masses of leaves that topple in damp heaps over neighboring perennials once the bulb flowers have faded.
Aging bulb foliage can be unsightly indeed as it passes through various unattractive color changes on the way to brown crispness. It’s tempting at the homeliest point to cut the leaves off, but to do so seriously weakens the bulbs. After a few seasons of such premature treatment, bulbs will rebloom sparsely if at all.
Feed and Fold
One good way to handle all this is to feed bulbs just as they come into bloom. Because the soil is chilly at that point, chemical fertilizers won’t help, but a blend of feather, soy or cottonseed meal and kelp meal will nurture your bulbs as they bloom and fade over the next few months. I also renew their blanket of mulch with several inches of either aged compost or well rotted dairy manure.
When the bulb foliage starts to collapse, you can gently fold it earthward. Once it changes from green to yellow, the foliage is no longer feeding the mother bulb. Now you can tucking it discretely under the mulch and let it decay in peace without becoming an eyesore.
Moving Bulbs In The Green
I am often asked when it’s best to divide or transplant bulbs. Spring bulbs are best moved ‘in the green’, which means after the flowers have faded but while the foliage is still robust and green. Start with the earliest bloomers such as snow crocus and snow drops, which are typically ready to divide by late March. In time, of course, many early bulbs will spread themselves into enormous carpets, as long as their foliage is not removed too soon. However, if you don’t want to wait decades to see this charming sight, you can speed the process up considerably.
Dig up a crowded clump and gently separate the bulbs. Replant them in little colonies, including some larger bulbs as well as tiny seedlings in each new group. Every little cluster will expand each season, and you can facilitate their spread by dividing them every 3-5 years. Add some of the bulb food described above to each new group, mulch them well with compost and your early bulbs will spread with alacrity.
Make A Tapestry Meadow
If you want to introduce snowdrops, crocus, or daffodils into a lawn or meadow, you can cut 3-sided flaps of turf and set the bulbs beneath them. Set the bulbs in groups of 5-10, firm them into the exposed soil, then gently tamp down the grass flaps. This works best with dry bulbs, and is most successful when done in autumn, just as the rains arrive.
To avoid squirrel theft, use varieties of Crocus tommasinianus. Tommies, as the Brits fondly call them, come in soft shades of lavender, purple, and rose madder and bloom in early spring. By nature, they are prolific little critters, spreading by seed and bulblet in any decent soil. At the Bainbridge Public Library, the Friday Tidies put in 500 tommies about 10 years ago. The seed got into our compost, and now every bed we mulch with it produces sheets of lovely crocus from February into March.
Timing The Treatments
In my garden, dozens of daffodils are still blooming bravely in early May, but that’s because I planted them very late indeed. Last week’s heat wave brought temperatures into the 80’s, after a long, slow spring, and many plants went into shock (people too). My bulbs are in shade for much of the day and thus escaped the crisping some plants experienced. Many of the later blooming bulbs are definitely distressed looking now and they will be divided and moved this week.
Among them are snowflakes (Leucojum), larger, taller and later to bloom than snowdrops (Galanthus). They are often confused, since both have white petals tipped or touched with green. However, where snowdrops have a long outer skirt and a shorter inner skirt of 3 petals each, snowflakes have 6 petals all the same length. They also bloom on 12-16-inch stems, where most snowdrops remain under 6 inches.
Time To Trim
Snowflakes make great masses of foliage, as do grape hyacinths. Unlike more delicate bulbs, these will both rebloom even if their foliage gets trimmed a bit on the early side. In any case, once the leaves have fully browned off and turn brittle, they can be removed and composted.
Potted bulbs that were enjoyed indoors are not always good repeaters when transplanted into the garden. However, if fed with the bulb mix described above and planted well away from any summer irrigation, they usually recover in a season or two. Some, like hyacinths, may persist for decades, slowly increasing by offsets and building into generous clumps.
Time To Hide
The slowly maturing stalks of later blooming tulips can look awful amongst the rising tide of summery perennials. These can be gently persuaded to lie down, then covered with mulch. If you never get around to removing the elderly stems and leaves, it won’t matter a bit. If you prefer, you can also trim them a bit at a time, removing the soft, pale bits and leaving anything still firm and green. This works for lilies as well, which can be similarly weakened by precipitate removal of browning stems and leaves.