Best of
Wild Things…
Spring Bulb Maintenance
By Karen Vizzi
     There’s nothing more hopeful than the blooms of spring bulbs after a Western New York winter. Although these first flowers of the season must be planted in the fall, there are a few spring cultural notes to be aware of to keep your current collection beautiful for seasons to come.
     The most important thing to remember about a spring flowering bulb is that the bulb itself is a complete storage system for the future plant. When you purchase bulbs from a grower or garden center, the flower and leaves have already formed inside the bulb and there is really nothing to do except plant it. The trick is to manage it properly after bloom to get that flower to come back the following year. Once the flowers have faded, it is critical that you NOT remove the foliage until it has completely yellowed or died back naturally. That remaining foliage needs to soak up energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil to form the plant for next year. Well, therein lies the problem! Most bulb foliage begins to look pretty ratty prior to reaching that critical stage, and many gardeners get frustrated and chop it off. But resist the urge! Do fertilize at this point and DO remove any flower heads and stalks, as you don’t want the plant to waste energy producing seed.
     Some of the earliest bulbs die back pretty quickly, like muscari (grape hyacinth) and crocus, and are not much of a problem. But daffodils and tulips can be very stubborn. I have had daffodil foliage still growing strong in July! There are two ways to handle the ratty foliage. Some gardeners swear by the braiding method. This involves braiding the leaves and securing the ends with a rubber band, much the same way you would braid human hair. I am not a fan of this method. I think it looks bizarre. The other method is interplanting. This involves planting the bulbs in between other leafy perennials. The idea is that by the time the bulb foliage begins to lag, its neighbors have produced enough fresh growth to hide it. The planting depth for bulbs is generally deeper that perennials, enabling you to fit a lot of plants into a small space.
     With a little care, many spring bulbs will naturalize and begin to spread in successive years. With one exception…the tulip. The tulip, by nature, is a short-lived bulb. The first year will always be the best show, with the second year being less impressive. By the third season, don’t be surprised to have much smaller and fewer flowers. This is one bulb that is best re-planted every year or two.
     In general, spring bulbs do not provide any habitat value to the wild garden. They have been over-hybridized and do not have high nectar content or host plant value. Exceptions might be a few varieties of open-flowered muscari and a lesser bulb called the toad lily. But… I guess you could say their beauty provides food for the soul of the wild gardener!

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