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Should I lift my bulbs or not?

Should I lift my bulbs or not?

One of our most asked questions is: should I lift my bulbs or not?

Fortunately, the South African climate does not require many members of the bulb family to be taken out the soil - unless you’re making space for other bulbs or annuals to be planted out. 

Many bulbs are hardy perennials that can just be left where they are. Just cover them in a nice warm blanket of mulch in a spot that isn’t sodden.  

Should I lift my bulbs in winter?

As we head into the colder temperatures of winter, many are worried that their precious gladioli corms and dahlia tubers may take strain or freeze.  For those in the winter rainfall areas, it could be problematic if they don’t have well-draining soil, lending bulbs to rot. 

Many indigenous summer flowering species (from summer rainfall areas) actually resent being disturbed once they have been planted. These include: Crinum, Dierama, Crocosmia and Hemerocallis

Those that are half-hardy – ones that may need a sheltered sunny spot in well-draining soil, such as dahlias, tuberous begonias, tritonia and tulbaghia, may need a little more protection in a winter mulch.

If you are in a garden that gets heavy frost, you may want to lift your bulbs and store them undercover. We recommend keeping them in a frost-free garden shed until spring comes around again. Or plant them into mesh pots to store in a dry area. In really wet winter rainfall areas, consider lifting your dahlia tubers as they don’t enjoy being wet and will likely rot.

If you are looking at planting summer bulbs where your winter bulbs are, it is best to take the winter bulbs out. This will ensure that they do not get over-watered and vice versa. 

How do I lift my bulbs?

To lift any bulb, corm or tuber, wait until their growth has turned yellow and died down. This will be at least six weeks after flowering. You don’t want to take them out while the leaves are still green as they’re still producing food and energy for the bulb to get through winter. The photosynthesis from the leaves gives them all they need to come back fighting fit next season. 

Some dahlias may still be flowering, so they should be left until their growth is blackened by frost. At this stage they should be in dormancy. Trim the stalks back to about 15cm before lifting the tubers. 

Gladioli can be lifted while foliage is dying back. It is best to get it done before winter frosts come along which may kill them off. If you live in a milder area, leave them where they are as long as the soil is well-draining.

What to do after the bulbs are lifted 

Once lifted, discard any diseased or damaged bulbs. Clean the healthy bulbs by removing dead foliage, soil and any loose stuff. Dust the bulbs with a fungicide, then dry them on a mesh rack. Pack them into a brown paper bag and leave in a cool, airy dry place. Then when the right planting times arrive, all you need to do is plant them out as before! 

A word of warning – some bulbs such as Hippeastrum may bloom within the same season that they’re replanted out. Most bulbs will need a growing season within that year to establish themselves again. They may not be as floriferous as in previous years, so perhaps enhance the space with some fresh bulbs too.

How to overwinter bulbs in the ground

When it comes to caring for your summer flowering bulbs that are going to be overwintering in the garden, very little actually needs to be done. They will likely naturally just pop up again in spring or summer.

If there are still some flowers on your plants that have wilted, remove them. This will stop the plant from wasting energy on producing seed.  Asiatic hybrid lilies can be simply left in the ground. If you live in an area that stays fairly hot through the winter months, give your lilies some shade. This will help keep them cool while they’re dormant.

The main thing is to lessen your watering frequency. Be sure not to feed your plants once they start going brown and into dormancy as this will confuse the plants and they will keep producing leaves. Don’t pull off leaves until they have turned brown. the plant is still producing energy for the bulb to get through winter safely. Once all the foliage has died back, you can gently lift the bulbs and separate if they’ve become overcrowded.  Add a thick layer of mulch – and leave them alone! Lilies especially don’t like being moved, and really abhor wet feet!

In drier areas, try to keep the soil moist throughout the year, but not sodden. If you’re planning on planting out winter/spring-flowering varieties in the same place, remember that those will need a fair amount of watering, so perhaps look at only having waterwise varieties of other plants in that space.

Should I lift my Hippeastrum?

For Hippeastrum, if there is foliage this means it’s collecting nutrients to ensure its embryo buds are well prepared for next season. Should your bulbs be indoors, move the pot into a sunny and warm area in the garden. If you didn’t give the plants any food after flowering and there is still a healthy amount of foliage, give them some Hadeco Bulb Food. This will ensure they get all the nutrients and energy it needs. You can also use a flowering plant fertiliser. Just be sure that it does not contain high nitrogen levels as this will encourage more green growth.

At this time, you will have been reducing your watering regime. If you live in the warmer parts of KZN, try prevent water from reaching the plant during June and July to discourage activity during winter when it should be resting. Remove the stalks once the foliage has succumbed to winter frosts, if it hasn’t died back already. Adding mulch will help conserve and regulate water and warmth once cooler temperatures really set in.

Once it’s in its rest period, don’t feed or water it.

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