How to Care for Spring Flower Bulbs After They Bloom
Spring flower bulbs get the gardening season off to an early start. From the first crocuses and daffodils to the last tulips and alliums, it’s a show that can last from March through May.
When spring eventually turns to summer, gardeners often wonder what to do about the spent flowers and fading foliage from their spring-blooming bulbs. The answer is, it depends if you’re treating the bulbs as annuals or perennials.
Spring Bulbs as Annuals
Many spring-blooming bulbs, including crocuses, daffodils, chionodoxa and scilla, return to bloom year after year. But not all bulbs behave this way. Tulips, for example, always look their best the first year after planting. If the soil and climate conditions are ideal, they may re-bloom for several years. But in most cases, after that first year, the bulbs will go on to produce smaller flowers and fewer of them.
For this reason, we usually recommend treating tulips as annuals. After they finish blooming, use a garden fork to gently lift the bulbs out of the ground and put the entire plant in your compost pile. Removing the bulbs as well as the foliage will help minimize problems with fusarium, a common fungal disease that can affect tulips.
Replanting fresh bulbs every fall may sound extravagant, but there are advantages. You can count on always getting a fabulous display of spring flowers. You also get the fun of creating completely new combinations of colors and textures each and every year.
Spring Bulbs as Perennials
Early-blooming bulbs such as snowdrops, crocus, chionodoxa, scilla and most daffodils are reliably perennial. If the growing conditions are agreeable, they will rebloom every spring and most will also multiply over time. There’s no need to deadhead, fertilize or divide them unless they become overcrowded or you want to spread them around in other areas.
Hyacinths will usually bloom for several years, though the size of the flowers tends to gradually decline. Muscari, fritillaria and alliums will also return to bloom again if the soil is well-drained and stays relatively dry during summer and winter.
Most spring-blooming bulbs grow best in loose, well-drained soil that is warm and relatively dry in the summer and cold and relatively dry in the winter.
Tulips are the fussiest about soil conditions. When they are planted in heavy soil that holds too much moisture, the bulbs have a tendency to split. If you have ever dug up a tulip bulb after it has bloomed, you may have seen this yourself.
Once a tulip bulb has split into two or more sections, it no longer has enough energy to produce a full-size blossom. Some types of tulips are less prone to splitting and more likely to rebloom. These include most species tulips, Darwin hybrids, emperor tulips and some triumph tulips.
Removing Spent Flowers
If you want to try getting your tulips to re-bloom, snip off the flowers right after they fade. With daffodils, there’s really no reason to remove the spent flowers — other than to make them look better.
The seed heads of alliums can be almost as attractive as the flowers, so you may want to leave them in place. Removing them doesn’t seem to affect the performance of the bulbs one way or another. Do be aware that some alliums, including Purple Sensation, will self-sow. If you don’t want seedlings, you need to remove the flower heads.
Smaller bulbs, such as crocus, muscari, scilla and snowdrops, multiply by seed as well as by bulb offsets. To encourage naturalizing, it’s best to leave those flowers attached so the seeds can ripen.
Hiding or Removing Bulb Foliage
Bulbs use their foliage to produce the energy they need to form new flowers. So, if you want your bulbs to re-bloom, it’s important to leave the foliage in place until it has withered and turned yellow. When the foliage can be pulled away from the bulb with a gentle tug, it’s ready to go.
The foliage of early-blooming bulbs such as chionodoxa and scilla fades away in a matter of weeks. Larger bulbs can take as long as a few months, depending on the weather and type of bulb. There are several ways you can cope with this ripening foliage.
In a perennial garden, you can use the foliage of other plants hide the leaves. Hostas, daylilies, nepeta and perennial geraniums do an excellent job of covering the spent foliage of tulips, daffodils and alliums. Click here for some recommended spring bulb and perennial pairings based on field tests at Cornell University.
Another option is to plant your bulbs in an area where you won’t mind seeing the foliage. Alliums and daffodils are ideal for meadows, road sides and other wild-ish areas where their ripening foliage will be out of sight.
Consider planting some of your tulips and hyacinths in a cutting garden or part of your vegetable garden — rather than among your perennials. They will appreciate the good soil and lack of competition. After they bloom, it takes no time at all to dig them out before planting warm-weather crops such as dahlias or tomatoes.
One other option is to dig up your spring bulbs immediately after they have finished flowering and replant them – with foliage still attached – in a holding bed. When fall comes, dig up the bulbs and move them back.