Looking after winter bulbs!

If your garden is anything like mine, it’s growing into its summer colours and shrugging off its spring mantle. The swallows are back in their 12-year-old mud tunnels and their messy spring-cleaning has been swept away from the front porch. My trees still have a lime green spring tinge to their fresh leaves but their canopies are heavy and full of nesting birds. The grass is thick springy once more. My May bush blossoms are quietly dropping as the roses are opening. The fruit salad bush (Feijoa sellowiana) is alive with hungry mouse birds eating their exotic burgundy and pink-fringed flowers and my spring-flowering bulbs are starting to prepare for summer dormancy.

The snowflakes (Leucojum), which are always the first to peep out after the cold of winter, are also the first to go. In scattered drifts, dwarf Agapanthus are coming into flower – their erect stems and closed buds are like the slim necks and neat heads of the dilly thick knees (dikkops) that nest nearby in long veld grass. Concealed by the bright green growth of the Agapanthus, the Leucojum leaves are turning softly tea coloured and drooping. Soon I’ll clear away their withered leaves and forget for a while that they were ever there until they surprise me again next year with their deep green, glossy leaves and frilly white bell-headed flowers. 

A good question to ask right now is, “What should I do with my valuable winter bulbs?” The answer is pretty straightforward: you have three options - leave, lift or discard. How will you decide which is which? If you apply reason, it is not difficult to figure it out.

Essentially, bulbs that go into dormancy in the summer want to be left well alone to withdraw and conserve their energy until conditions (shorter days and a drop in the temperature) nudge them out of their summer hibernation.

Firstly, if you want your bulbs to flower in successive seasons, you will need to water and feed them regularly during their growing and flowering season, and importantly, after flowering before their foliage dies down – this is when they absorb the nutrients they need to produce new embryonic flowers that will bloom later.

Some winter bulbs can simply be left in the ground for the summer, provided that conditions are not too wet. As always, native conditions determine what plants like best. Therefore, it makes sense that bulbs from winter rainfall areas will probably be perfectly happy if left where they are if you have a garden on the Cape Peninsula. However, if drainage is not good and they are left in the ground during dormancy, the same winter bulbs will surely rot in a summer rainfall region.

Many bulbs have naturalised successfully in gardens all over South Africa, regardless of whether they have a Mediterranean climate (as long as drainage is adequate). I have already mentioned the Leucojum that I shamefully neglect for most of the year in my Highveld garden. Similarly, because I feed and water my Narcissus, Freesia and Sparaxis properly, they reward me year after year in the same spots in my beds – it’s a wonderful kind of magic. As my garden has matured, I have had to lift and move some bulbs to sunnier positions but otherwise, I leave them be.

Some bulbs (often gorgeous, irresistible exotics like tulips) simply will not flower from year to year in this country. In my opinion, rather than wasting time, energy and money on watering and feeding, it’s more sensible in the long run to let expert growers do the hard work. When they are past their best, just lift them and recycle them on the compost heap.

What about lifting and storing bulbs if necessary? At the end of their growing season, when foliage starts to droop and turn yellow, all remaining leaves can be removed just above the parent bulb which must not be damaged. Lift the bulbs from the soil but don’t injure them with your fork or you will have to discard them anyway. Once they have dried in the air in a cool, shady place, dust with a fungicide and an insecticide.

The best container for storage is a wooden crate or cardboard box. Plastic bags or boxes are not suitable, as they do not breathe. Store your bulbs between layers of dry wood shavings, sand, scrunched up newspaper or sawdust so that they do not touch each other. Once this is done, remember to label what you have stored.

Finally, don’t forget to plant your treasures roughly four months down the line at the change of the season. You will be amply rewarded for your efforts.

Tags: Hadeco, Bulbs, South Africa, Winter, lifting, storing, leucojums, Narcissus, Freesia, Sparaxis

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