Tips for Storing Garden Bulbs
Traditionally, flower bulbs - and many tubers - have been lifted every year from beds, borders and pots and then stored to ensure that they are not damaged by squirrels, mice and other vermin as it was thought they would flower less freely in subsequent years if left in the ground. Received wisdom is a funny thing; sometimes it perpetuates surprising practices with good reason, sometimes we should just move on.
Do Bulbs Need to Be Lifted and Stored?
In the case of bulbs, this lifting is often extra work at a time when most of us do not have extra pairs of hands in the garden. So, the first question is whether you really need to lift and store your spring bulbs? Bulbs are often bred to survive well and even naturalise in grass and borders. Many alliums and daffodils come into this category along with some tulip varieties that are recommended for naturalising like Negrita, Ballerina, Golden Apeldoorn and Spring Green - all wonderful perennial tulips varieties.
Rather than lifting, the trick to ensure your bulbs delight you year on year is to give them a high potash feed as they flower - a high nitrogen feed will just benefit the surrounding grass - and continue with a final feed as the leaves yellow and wilt. The extra nutrients are absorbed by the bulb to provide the oomph for next year's flowers.
Bulb foliage should be left intact for six weeks after flowering so that the nutrients in the leaves can also be drawn back down into the bulb for the same reason. If you think that badgers or mice will rootle your bulbs out, then cover the area in which they are planted with chicken wire. The stalks and leaves will grow through it and hopefully, it deters would-be bulb eaters.
When Should You Lift and Store Bulbs?
However, there are various scenarios where it is advisable to put in the extra work of lifting and storing your garden bulbs for re-use the following year:
- If you grew your bulbs in pots and wish to re-use the pots for other purposes over the summer.
- If you have bulbs that have been growing in one spot or pot for several years they will have become overcrowded. Remove the top layer of compost to check whether the bulbs are crammed together too tightly or/and have produced extra new bulbs which are now too close to their parent bulb. If so, lift when dormant and replant at a more generous spacing.
- If the risk of damage from wildlife like badgers, mice and squirrels is great.
- Where the soil may become waterlogged in summer; most bulbs will rot if left in truly wet soil.
- If you want to change the colour scheme or display in your borders each year.
How to Store Garden Bulbs
Timing and preparation are key when it comes to maximising the chances of storing your bulbs successfully. As mentioned, try to feed your bulbs with a high potash fertiliser. Then, once the flowers have faded, wait to lift the bulbs until leaves have gone yellow and wilted, which is generally about a 6 weeks after flowering. If you are in the reuse-pot-scenario, and you wish to redeploy your pots before full wilt has been achieved, then just transfer the contents of the pot to a spare area of the garden and replant the whole caboodle so that the leaves can die back naturally in the soil.
Whatever you choose, deadhead before the bulbs set seed by cutting off the stalk just below the flower head. In this way, you divert the energy that would have gone into seed production back down to the bulb. Allow any pots to dry out a little before lifting the bulbs out of the compost, or try to wait for a dryish period if the bulbs are in beds or borders. Carefully loosen the soil around the bulbs and remove them using a fork.
Discard any bulbs that look diseased, rotten or damaged. If any have formed decent sized bulblets or offsets, separate these off now to make new bulbs. Rub off any flaky, dry brown tunic tissue and soil using your hands leaving the bulb clean. Gently pull or cut off the dead foliage. Put the naked bulbs onto a wire tray to dry out overnight. Belts and braces gardeners will then use a soft brush to powder the bulbs with fungicide or sulphur to prevent mildews or moulds forming. Finally, put the bulbs into nets, or a cardboard box with newspaper crumpled between the layers of bulbs or paper (not plastic) bags that are clearly labelled with the bulb variety name. Use indelible ink for labelling!
These should then be stored somewhere frost free and dark until you wish to plant them in autumn. It is worth checking the bulbs over the summer to make sure that none have rotted or become soft which would lead to disease infecting the rest. Before planting, make sure they are still in good shape and put a tiny bit of fertiliser or bonemeal at the bottom of each planting hole to get them off to the best possible start in their new homes.