Bulbs do not require and excessive amount of care, but timing and quantity of inputs are unique relative to other perennials. Here is a guide to care for established bulb gardens.
If not done before planting, it is beneficial to mulch the bulb flower bed before heat of summer sets in. This will keep the soil cool, retain moisture, and help with weed control.
Bulbs require deep watering
Bulbs have a range of water needs, depending on species, but most need soil that is consistently moist. For spring bulbs, except in the case of a very dry spring, irrigation is not usually needed until about the time flower buds appear on the plants. Once started, irrigation will likely be needed until the foliage dies and the bulbs go dormant. Because they are planted deep, bulbs should be irrigated less often and to a greater depth than nearby lawn areas. Summer flowering bulbs will likely need water until first frost.
Bulbs are not considered heavy feeders, but do need an annual application of fertilizer to look their best. Use a complete fertilizer that is relatively high in phosphorus. Apply the equivalent of 2-3 lb nitrogen per 1,000 sq.ft. Timing of application is fairly critical. Bulbs begin growing new roots very early in the spring and need fertility available to start this process. So, the best time to apply fertilizer to spring bulbs is in October or early November. A second option is to apply half the fertilizer in the fall and the other half about the time the plants begin to flower. Summer blooming bulbs do best with fertilizer applied about the time the plants emerge or when they are transplanted outside.
There are no options to completely replace hand weeding in bulbs. Mulching with organic matter or weed barriers will help by blocking germination and growth of weed seed. Perennial weeds that emerge before the bulbs can be sprayed out with a glyphosate product. Grasses in irises and gladiolas can be controlled with a grass herbicide containing sethoxydim. Grass controlling herbicides cannot be used on other bulbs without risk of serious injury.
Some bulb plants, especially summer bulbs, have large flowers and somewhat weak stems. They may need to be tied to stakes or allowed to grow inside a support cage to remain upright and attractive.
Foliage should die naturally before pruning
Immediately after the bloom period, all seed heads should be removed. This not only improves appearance, but allows the plant to direct its energy to producing new and larger bulbs. The foliage of bulb plants should be allowed to die naturally (or at least be yellow and dying before removal). Healthy leaves are essential to the process of growing new bulbs. Over a period of a few years, removing the leaves too early will cause the bulbs to become smaller and decline in vigor.
Many gardeners do not like the look of post-bloom foliage in the garden. The unattractive leaves can be masked by planting other types of flowers in the bulb garden that will take up the slack in bloom time while the bulbs complete their growth and decline.
Over a period of several years, some bulb plants, such as daffodils, tulips, and crocuses will produce many bulbs and become crowded. When severe, this crowding will reduce bloom potential and make blooms smaller. This can be solved by uncovering the bulbs, dividing them into single units, and replanting the largest and healthiest of the bulbs at a more appropriate spacing. Dividing is best done in the fall, the usual time for planting bulbs. However, by fall all sign of foliage is gone and it is hard to identify the location of the bulbs. This can be solved by using small stakes to mark the plants before they die, or as a second best option, by simply dividing in late spring when the foliage has declined but still marks the presence of plants. Bulbs that are freshly dug and divided should be replanted as quickly as possible to prevent damage from drying conditions. Although not considered an option of choice in Idaho , spring bulbs can be harvested after blooming and stored in the refrigerator until being replanted in the fall.
Tender summer bulbs must be harvested and stored in the fall
In all regions of Idaho , the tender summer bulbs, such as dahlia, canna, tuberous begonia, and gladiolas must be harvested at the end of the growing season and stored indoors. Otherwise, the bulbs will be damaged or killed by freezing soil conditions. At the first sign of frost injury on the foliage, the bulbs should be harvested, cleaned, cured, and stored. Proper storage conditions vary by species. Complete discussion of the harvesting and storing process, including proper storage conditions for common summer bulb plants, can be found in a University of Minnesota document written by Mary Meyer.
The University of Illinois provides more general information on growing bulbs.
The term forcing refers to growing practices that bring bulb flowers into bloom during the off-season. Typically, this process is used to produce indoor flowers during the winter months. For each species, certain environmental constraints must be met to overcome bulb dormancy and allow growth and bloom. For spring bulbs, this usually means cold storage before planting in a pot. For summer bulbs, it may mean supplying specific requirements of light duration. It is beyond the scope of this discussion to provide specific requirements of all plants, but understand it can be done and seek procedures elsewhere. Information on forcing spring bulbs can be found on the University of Kentucky site.
Insect and Disease Control
It is beyond the scope of this site to provide specific pest management information for the large number of commercially available bulb species. Each has unique problems that may be more or less serious. However, there are many pests that are common and infest many types of plants. Diagnostic and simple control information will be given below for these common pests. For detailed information on control of insects and diseases, as well as information of other pests, see the Insect and Disease Pests section of this site.
Aphids: Also known as plant lice. Small, soft-bodied, sucking insects that cluster on the stems or underside of leaves. Aphids are usually wingless and green, brown, or black in color. Symptoms of infested plants include distorted or curled leaves, presence of sticky sap (honeydew) on the infested surfaces, and misshapen new growth.
Aphids can be controlled with the use of insecticidal soap or a registered insecticide. A strong stream of water directed at the infected plants may knock them from the plant. Many beneficial insects feed on aphids and if an infestation is not too severe, it may be appropriate to be patient and let nature take its course.
Spider Mites: Not actually insects, these miniscule pests are actually related to spiders. They spin protective webs on the underside of leaves and feed by sucking juice from the leaves. Symptoms include color mottling that, at a distance, may appear as a general yellowing of older leaves. Webbing will be presence on the underside of infested leaves. The mites, to small to be easily visible, can be detected by shaking a leaf over piece of clean white paper.
Spider mites prefer dry, dusty environments. Sprinkler irrigation or routine washing of leaves with water usually keep them at bay. A severe infestation may require the use of a registered miticide. Most common insecticides are ineffective against spider mites.
Slugs can damage many bulb flowers
Slugs and Snails: Prefer damp soil and humid conditions. Slugs and snails often hide during the day and feed at night. Symptoms include chewed leafs and glistening slime trails on plant surfaces.
Control snails and slugs with baits.
Thrips: Damage is cause by the larva of this small, four-winged insect. Thrips reside on the underside of leaves and use their rasping mouthparts to scrape away the surface of the leaf after which they feed on the sap. Symptoms appear as white streaks and blotches, more prominent on the underside of the leaf.
A light infestation does little permanent damage to the plant and can be ignored. A heavy infestation will likely require the use of a registered insecticide.
Root and Bulb Rots: Are caused by the penicillium (blue mold) and Fusarium fungi and the soft rot bacteria that live in the soil. These organisms are worse problems on bulbs that are harvested and stored than on those that are left in the soil over winter. Infected bulbs become soft, pink, or mushy and often have an offensive odor.
Control measures include careful harvesting to prevent injury that provides a point of entry for rot organisms. Infected bulbs should immediately be eliminated.
Grey Mold affects many bulb plants, including peony
Grey Mold or Botrytis: Is caused by a fungus that overwinters in the soil. It infects plant stems that touch moist soil surfaces and splashed onto leafs with rain or irrigation water. Symptoms include water-soaked spots on the leaves that become a slimy, grey mold. Infected tissue quickly collapses and dies.
Control includes removal of infected tissue, both live and dead. In severe cases it may be necessary to apply a preventative fungicide.
Bulb can be affected by chronic viruses
Virus: Not technically alive, viruses are small, disruptive pieces of genetic material that disrupt plant function. Symptoms vary widely and usually include some combination of stunting, yellowing, mottling, or leaf and stem distortion. Viruses are a particularly severe problem on bulbs and other perennials because their long life span and lack of seed propagation create many opportunities for chronic infection.
There are no control measures for viruses other than using resistant varieties or controlling the organisms (usually insects) that transfer them from one plant to another. Prevention involves removing and destroying any infected plants.
Information on control of garden insects and diseases common to Idaho can be found in the online Idaho Master Gardener Handbook.
See specific information on controlling bulb diseases and insects at the University of Connecticut web site.
Ornamental onions are eye-catching summer bulbs