Earlier this month, we celebrated Easter and along with it, we celebrated spring. In many cases, those celebrations included gifts of potted tulips, daffodils and lilies.
And then what usually happens, the holiday has passed and the once lovely blooming plant has dropped its petals, leaving behind plenty of nice, green foliage, but who wants that? We want flowers on our tables. What do we do now?
In the past couple weeks, I've been asked more than once, what to do with those gifted pots of bulbs? Can we put them in our gardens? Will they ever bloom again?
The answer is maybe they will and maybe they won't. No one really knows for sure unless you try it. Fortunately, there are ways to encourage success with a gifted blooming perennial, although success also depends on the plant itself.
If, let's say, you are given a pot of blooming tulips, chances are they are hybrids. It is possible, although unlikely they are species tulips, but the taller hybrids are the favorites among retail sales. It is safe to say you will have better success getting the species tulips to rebloom, but that doesn't mean the hybrids are a lost cause.
Hybrid tulips, or any plant for that matter, is the first generation cross of two parent plants. Hybrids generally are bred to capture the best qualities of each parent and if seeds are collected, you are not likely to get an exact copy of the hybrid. You may end up with something that looks like either parent, or something that looks totally different. In the case of tulips, hybrids are not as keen on reproducing and they tend to tire out after the first season. In the fall, when we planted the lovely, huge bulbs, chances are good that every one will grow and bloom the next spring. By the second spring, there won't be as many blooms and by the fourth spring, you may not get any returns. In addition, what does come up isn't going to be as vigorous as that first spring. If you wondered why public gardens dig up and toss the bulbs on the compost heap as soon as the flowers drop, this is it.
Species tulips, also known as botanical tulips, are not as popular as the large, showy hybrids because they are smaller. At a mere eight-inches versus up to 24 inches for the hybrids, it also takes many more planted together to capture attention in the garden.
Daffodils are more likely to return, but to get them to that point is the same as with tulips. Whether you are dealing with true daffodils or jonquils, those bright yellow members of the Narcissus family of plants love to grow and bloom. Lilies are the same. It might take them a year or two to replenish their strength after being forced into bloom by the world of retail sales, but it isn't impossible.
Everyone knows, or at least has an inkling, that the proper time to plant spring flowering bulbs is in the fall. Hybrid tulips, narcissus, crocus and others need a period of cooling off to stimulate growth and those periods are different for different plants. It's probably safe to say, the bigger the bulb, the longer cold time it needs, which is why crocus are the first to bloom, followed by narcissus and then hybrid tulips. Species tulips bloom earlier than hybrids, but the bulbs are smaller.
Everyone also knows, or at least they should, that in order for a spring bulb to get strong enough to bloom again, the leaves need to grow and die back naturally. This means no cutting them off halfway, no braiding, tying-up or otherwise attempts to hide them. This is why we recommend planting day-lilies around your daffs and tulips. Lily leaves look similar and the blooming lilies hide the yellowing foliage of the spring bulbs.
The same goes for potted tulips and narcissus. Once the flowers drop their petals, cut the stalks as far back as possible, but let the foliage grow. Put the containers in a sunny window. Don't overwater or you'll end up with rotted bulbs, yet keep the soil slightly moist. The best way to ensure good drainage is to remove any foil or other packaging that may have come with the plant when it was gifted. If the soil does get dry, soak it completely under the tap and let the water drain from the bottom. Feed the bulbs a balanced fertilizer according to the manufacturer's directions.
When we aren't expecting any more frosty nights - usually by the third week of May - place the potted bulbs outside in the coolest spot in the yard, where they can get adequate sunlight. Let the leaves die naturally and once they have, stop feeding and cut back on the watering by at least half. Store the containers in a cool garage or basement until September, when you can take them out of their pots and plant them directly into the garden.