Overwintering Tender Bulbs

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Freshly dug gladiolus corms drying out and awaiting storage.

Freshly dug gladiolus corms drying out and awaiting storage.

The growing season is coming to an end, plants are starting to die back and the first frost is right around the corner. It’s time for some annual maintenance. One task is getting your tender bulbs out of the ground so they can be showstoppers in your garden next year.

The term ‘bulb’ used as an everyday term refers to all plants that grow from fleshy underground storage organs. While there is a difference between rhizomes, corms, and tuberous roots, it’s generally not important for the average gardener to fuss over. However, understanding the difference between hardy and tender bulbs is key. Hardy bulbs such as daffodils, hyacinths, irises, and snowdrops over-winter in the ground. Tender bulbs such as dahlias, calla lilies, gladiolus, and caladiums have a low survival rate over the winter. To avoid having to purchase these bulbs every year they must be dug up and stored indoors during winter months. In the spring, they can be replanted after the last frost.

When the foliage of tender bulbs dies back in the fall or has been killed by a frost, they can be cut back. Once cut back, dig them up for storage. Do not delay getting them out of the ground after frost or you may experience some rotting. When digging, begin several inches away from the plant so as to not knick the bulbs. Damage allows for pathogens to spread diseases. Shake off excess soil and wait to do any dividing until the spring because any damage will increase the risk of rotting during storage.

Bulbs then need to dry or cure before being stored. Discard or address bulbs with signs of damage, disease or insects. To cure, lay them out in a well ventilated area out of direct sunlight. Most bulbs will only take a few days and some can take a couple of weeks. Turning the bulbs periodically will facilitate the drying process.

Bulbs can be stored between 2-3 layers of peat moss, sand, vermiculite, sawdust, or wood shavings. You should avoid packing bulbs in an airtight container; instead, choose something ventilated such as a paper bag or cardboard box. Make sure individual bulbs do not touch. Once packed, label them and they can finally be put away for the winter. Optimal storage temperatures can vary depending on species, but choose a cool location that does not freeze. Ideal places include an unfinished area of a basement, root cellar, or unheated garage that does not freeze. 

Check bulbs a few times throughout the season removing any that show signs of disease or rot. If they seem too dry, like they have shriveled, you can moisten the packing medium with water in a spray bottle. If they are too moist, take them out and let them air dry before repacking.

Next spring after the threat of frost has passed, bulbs can be replanted for a stunning addition of color and foliage. While this process may take some time and leg work in the fall it’s an economical way of having unique plantings. For more information about landscape gardening, contact N.C. Cooperative Extension, Richmond County Center at (910) 997-8255. In addition, follow us on Facebook or visit our website for upcoming events and up to date information.