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How to grow bulbs, rhizomes and corms

These lovely peach colored tulips grow from true bulbs
Photo by Jane Gates

This is a perfect time of year for spring garden preparation. One of the most showy types of plants to plan into the coming season is the flower bulb. You can buy bulbs and similar type plants now and right through the early spring while they are dormant.

Bulbs, corms, rhizomes and tubers are all forms of root storage for plant growth. These plants drain their energy at the end of a growth season into neat little storage compartments (adapted roots like bulbs and corms or adapted stems like rhizomes and tubers) to snooze through winter. Bulbs are usually of the teardrop onion shape. Corms come in a variety of shapes. Rhizomes are usually elongated and can creep along the ground or form fingers that dig down into the soil. All these plants are usually pretty tough when dormant. Of course, should the odd gopher happen by, they are likely to disappear as a meal overnight. Gophers love them just like we love potatoes – which are tubers.

There are a couple of drawbacks to planting bulbs, corms and rhizomes. First, they tend to have a relatively short blooming period. Second, after blooming most of them look pretty tatty as the foliage dies back. The foliage can always be tied up or tucked back behind other perennials. Never cut the foliage off since that is where the energy drains back into the storage root for next years’ growth. Let it die back naturally, then pull the dead leaves free. On the bright side, these plants give some of the best flower shows available in the garden for their size. Most of them make great cut flowers. And they tend to increase when happy without you needing to do a thing

Tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths are common examples of bulbs. Gladioli, lilies, and crocosmias are examples of corms. Iris, dahlia, and yams are examples of rhizomes and tubers. There are many more plants in this root-storage family. Try some of the less usual varieties to add excitement to your garden.

Bulbs can make powerful design statements when clustered in groups. Some can be naturalized in grass so long as the lawn is not cut while the plants are flowering and until the foliage dies down. Perennials that spend much of the year out of flower can hide bulbs at their base so the flowers poke through the foliage adding colorful blooms even when the plant is only in leaf. Ornamental grasses make great partners for flowering bulbs.

If gophers are a problem in your area, make sure you plant your dormant bulbs in a wire basket to protect them. You can make one inexpensively by molding it out of metal hardware cloth or fine chicken wire. Certain common bulbs are poisonous to humans and pets – like the daffodil – so keep curious mouths away.

For the sake of design, plant formal looking bulbs like tulips and daffodils in clusters. Straight lines make them look like regimens of soldiers. Be aware that each single bulb offers up one single flower (or flower cluster). As plants die back, they tend to make offsets – new bulbs, rhizomes, corms or tubers – that may take one or two years to reach blooming maturity. In time you will have clumps that offer lots of flowers. When the bulbs become too crowded, plants become stunted and flowering is reduced in size and number. If your old bulbs are overcrowded, now is the time to carefully pry up the clumps and hand separate bulbs. You can re-plant the extras elsewhere or give them away to your gardening friends.

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