Questions on: Bulbs

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service

Q: I have always loved phlox. I found some bulbs after I bought my own home. When are they supposed to be planted? (e-mail reference)

A: You inquiry doesn't make sense to me. Phlox are herbaceous perennials, not bulbs. If you have bulbs and don't know what kind they are, I can't advise you accurately. Some bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, are winter-hardy. Other bulbs, such as tuberous begonias, are not cold-hardy at all. The hardy bulbs are planted in the early fall, while the others are planted after the danger of frost is past.

Q: I live in Casper, Wyo., and will soon be moving across town. It's about 50 degrees, so I dug up my tulip and daffodil bulbs and am keeping them in my fridge. I am going to plant them as soon as we move to the other house. I have about 50 bulbs. What should I do with them? I have them in plastic bags. Should I put wet paper towels in with the bulbs? I need to know what to do to make sure the bulbs live. Thanks! (e-mail reference)

A: You are doing all you can. Be sure you don't let the roots dry out, so keeping the bulbs covered with wetted paper towels is the way to go. Be sure to keep the plastic bags unsealed so the respiration gases can escape. Plant the bulbs as quickly and carefully as possible at the new location and then keep your fingers crossed that they recover.

Q: I enjoy the Hortiscope column you write. Do you know where I could find a bulb auger? I have not been able to find one. (Moorhead, Minn.)

A: I did a little searching and found just what you would need. The company is called The Garden Auger and can be accessed online at You will find that it has a wide selection from which to choose.

Q: My sister in Michigan gave me a giant allium bulb for my birthday. I planted the bulb approximately 6 inches deep on the south side of my house. After a few days, I decided to build a chicken wire cage around it to prevent small animals from digging it up. As an added precaution, I filled the cage with leaves. The leaves are firmly packed. What is your advice on this matter? If I need to change something, Iíd like do it before things freeze. I donít want to lose this bulb because it was a gift from my sister. (Fargo, N.D.)

A: Your actions are OK. Everything should be in place for successful survival and growth.

Q: I will be moving out of my home this fall. I have many bulbs that I want to dig up while I still can find them. Can you tell me a safe way to dig them up? Iím sure that some of them will be too small to bloom, but they could be planted and cared for at the edge of a garden so they bloom in a year or two. Many of the larger bulbs should bloom next year, if they receive the proper care. What are the optimum conditions for storing bulbs until planting time? When is the best planting time? (Minot, N.D.)

A: Carefully dig them up and store them in the crisper of your refrigerator or in the coolest location in your basement. Discard any that are injured during digging or that appear diseased. Separate any bulblets from the parent bulb to allow it to develop into a future plant. Plant them this fall after a couple of good frosts have slowed things down and water in.

Q: I just planted my bulbs. Is it OK to cover the ground with large bark chips? I cannot leave the ground uncovered because the neighborhood cats think my uncovered flower beds are their personal litter boxes. In one bed, I used large bark chips and in the other beds I used finer bark mulch. Will either inhibit the bulbs, ability to grow out of the ground? (e-mail reference)

A: Go ahead and cover them.

Q: My mom was telling me that when grandma was gardening with her, they used to soak gladiola bulbs in Lysol and water before they planted them. She has no idea why. What would be the reason? Does the Lysol act as an insecticide? (e-mail reference)

A: The Lysol serves as an insecticide (thrips) and fungicide. Good, cheap insurance that is readily available. Go for it!

Q: I would like to replant many of my fall bulbs (daffodils and hyacinths). The plants have bloomed and are planted under trees and bushes. I would like to dig them up now because I know where the flowers are and then transplant them to better locations. (e-mail reference)

A: Mark where they are or be a little more patient and dig them as soon as the foliage turns yellow. If you dig them up now, the foliage will wilt and you probably wonít get any flowers next year.

Q: I purchased a good number of bulbs last fall. I intended to plant all of them but I got busy and only planted half. What can I do to store these bulbs or can I still plant them and have them come up next year? (E-mail reference)

A: I doubt that you can successfully store the bulbs for another year. I suggest getting them planted as soon as possible and take whatever results you can get.

Q: Do you have any idea at what temperatures (lows) spring bulbs can survive? I'm wondering what will happen to them if they freeze. Will it kill the bulb? Also, we have patches of some type of grass showing up in our bluegrass lawn. The blade is extremely fine (almost like a newly seeded bluegrass), is slower to green up in the spring (so can easily be spotted right now), is a brighter green than the bluegrass once it gets going, and is very matted and tangled after the winter (rips out in a mat if we try to rake it.) I noticed it about two years ago and there are more areas every year. Any ideas as to what it is and what to do about it? (Aberdeen, S.D.)

A: Spring bulbs will tolerate anything that Mother Nature will throw at them right now -- snow, freezing rain, temperatures down to the mid-teens, etc. Don't bother covering them. It sounds like it might be bentgrass that is getting started in your lawn. If you are a golfer or live near a golf course, that's my best guess at this point. If that doesn't fit the bill, then my next best guess is nimblewill, which resembles bentgrass in appearance and would be sprouting and growing now in your area. Either get it raked out or spot killed with Roundup.

Q: We have bulbs of various early flowering plants in our yard. We are concerned that our unseasonably warm weather may activate them too early and that we might lose them when more seasonable weather and late frosts return later in March and April. Should they be covered with snow or chips to protect them or do we just take our chances. My wife thinks NDSU wasted a Ph.D. in botany on me 30 years ago because I don't know the answer. What do you think? (...about the bulbs only.) (Fargo, N.D., e-mail)

A: Nothing gained is ever wasted! The bulbs on the south exposure would be most vulnerable to early emergence. Keeping the soil cool with snow or straw mulch would slow their development down and keep them "hardened." Generally, the hardy bulbs grown in our area--tulips, daffodils, grape hyacinths etc.--make it through our capricious weather systems to only be done in by mice or rabbits. Daffodils are poisonous, so they are pretty much left alone, but the tulips are right at the top of the cottontail menu.

Q. I am writing about care and culture of violets—how soon to repot, when to bring them home from florists. Why do they, after awhile, grow heavy stems, neck type? How about water? When I don't have rainwater, I have to use well water. I boil it because it does have minerals. Also, gloxinias—more or less same questions. How and when to store bulbs until early spring? (Deering, N.D.)

A. Basically African violets and gloxinias need the same care. If they become unattractive with age, they are easily propagated from leaf petiole cuttings.

You are being too fussy with the watering. Boiling does not correct a mineral problem, it tends to concentrate them. I suggest using distilled water when rainwater is not available.

Q: My question concerns perennial bulb planting--namely, tulips, daffodils and hyacinths. I dug them up last fall to divide (and while trying to get the house painted) and never got them re-planted, or the house painted, either! Anyway, do I have to wait until fall to replant, or what would happen if I stuck them in say, early summer (warm enough to finish painting type weather)? I would guess they would not bloom this year.  Also, do you know of any lavender species hardy enough for here? (e-mail)

A: It all depends where you stored your bulbs. If you kept them at room temperature or just above freezing, they may not have had a sufficient enough cold treatment to bloom this year. If they did, you will get some blooms. I suspect the former rather than the lattr. Just plant them whenever you can.  They will bloom when they are ready to do so.  Concerning the lavender, the hardiest one is L. angustifolia, which is listed as being hardy to only zone 5. This creates a challenge for those of us in love with the plant who want to grow it in the Red River Valley.  Normally, I would say forget it, due to the zone difference, but my emotions are overriding my reasoning ability, so I say go for it anyway. Do your best to protect it through the winter, and plant it in well-composted soil that has excellent drainage. After heavy fall frosts have set in, cover the crown with leaves stuffed into a bushel basket, held down with bricks to keep it from blowing away. Do anything you can to encourage snow collection around the plant.

Q: For the past two years (and at two separate homes located about 70 miles from each other), I've planted crocus bulbs in the fall. The following spring, instead of having blossoms, the bulbs send up shoots that look like long blades of grass. I've tried different types of crocuses with the same results; however, three years ago, I planted crocuses without any problems. Is this a soil issue? (Grafton, Wis., e-mail)

A: Could be cold damage to the floral part of the plant or physical damage in handling (digging them at the nursery, most likely). They are usually crowbar tough plants that need little to no concern horticulturally.

Q: I have a great opportunity to take every bulb and plant I can get my hands on before a historic Newak, Del., farmhouse is completely redone and relandscaped. So far I've gotten iris, roses, tulips, daffodils, phlox, narcissus, grape hyacinth--wow! My greed has reached new proportions! There are some beautiful lilac bushes there on the property, but I'm not sure how to transplant a bush. I don't even know how to get it out of the ground. I am 5 feet 3 inches tall, and the bush is a little taller than I am. Do I need to take all the root, or can I be a little selective and cut it down a bit? How do I get the bush home? Wrapped up? Or, do I just throw it in the van and drive like crazy until I get there? Do I need to prepare the area where it will go first, and put it in immediately? Also, how do I keep the bulbs that I'm digging up until I can plant and mulch in the fall? None of the bulbs are in bloom anymore, but the leaves are all still out of the ground. Should I just plant them now and be done with it until next year? (Newak, Del., e-mail)

A: If the lilacs are not yet in leaf (I'd be surprised if they were not) you can cut them back by about one-third and dig up as much of the root ball as you can handle. Wrap it in moist burlap for transport and plant ASAP. If they are already in leaf, your chances of successfully transplanting are essentially nil. If they have already begun leafing out, then all you can do is wait until this fall to remove them for replanting. With the bulbs, do the same thing. Dig, wrap in moist burlap and plastic, transport, and plant ASAP. Expect some loss, but most should survive.

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