For lots of Mainers, planting bulbs in the garden conjures up images of cool temperatures and changing leaves while you dig holes for daffodil, crocus and tulip bulbs.
But fall isn’t the only time to plant bulbs. Spring brings with it the chance to plant another round of bulbs and tubers — this time in order to grow the colorful, often-showy or exotic flowers that will bloom later this summer. The list of spring-planted bulbs and tubers is long and includes dahlias, gladiolus, begonias, calla lilies and canna lilies, all of which can add drama and beauty to your garden.
“I think that traditionally, what people think about when they think about flower bulbs are fall-planted daffodils, tulips and hyacinths,” said Jenny Prince, a brand manager at Shelburne, Vermont-based American Meadows, a retailer of wildflower seeds, flower bulbs and more. “Spring-planted bulbs are kind of an overlooked solution. People don’t always think about them. But they can allow you to make your garden look fuller than it is, which is especially important in the first few years of a perennial garden.”
Spring-planted bulbs in cold climates will not come back on their own each year, instead growing as annuals in places with climates like Maine. That means that gardeners must either dig up the bulbs and tubers in the fall and safely store them over the winter, or else let them die in the ground and replant new bulbs and tubers the following spring. It requires a little more work, but can be a great way to experiment with garden flowers without committing yourself to a permanent garden plan. It also is possible to replant beloved plants year after year.
“Think of dahlias and begonias,” Prince said. “Even though you have to dig them up, sometimes they are saved over and over and over again. They’re passed down to family members, and saved because they’re treasures.”
Dahlias are having a moment right now, she said, and are a big seller for the company.
“There’s a dahlia mania sweeping the country right now,” Prince said.
One Maine dahlia fan, Mary Turner of Salt Farm Flowers in Trenton, expects to plant about 800 dahlia tubers this spring for her cut flower business. She also will plant bulbo-tubers, or corms, that will become the frilly, perfect ranunculus flower, and bulbs that will grow into the tall, fragrant tuberose. Spring is a busy time of year for her, but she loves the work, and of course she loves the flowers — especially the dahlias.
“It’s very rewarding,” Turner said of her business. “I’m late to growing dahlias, but now I couldn’t live without them. They’re just gorgeous flowers. They’re showy, they have great colors and great textures.”
She waits until mid-May to put her dahlia tubers into the soil, which needs to be both warm enough and dry enough for the flowers to thrive. Too wet, and the tubers can rot in the ground, she said. She also has to carefully ward away the slugs and snails that love to eat the tender dahlia shoots once they emerge from the ground. But if given a fair chance, the plants grow and grow, until erupting into a wall of colorful blooms around the end of July.
“All through August and September and even October, until we get a freeze, they are just going like gangbusters,” Turner said.
After the first killing frosts of the fall, she lets the dahlias stay in the ground a couple of weeks longer so they start setting their “eyes,” or the new growth, she said.
Waiting before digging up bulbs is important, agree experts including Kate Garland, a horticulturist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Gardeners should not act until after the foliage fades and yellows.
“They’re translocating their resources into the bulb for the year,” she said of the flowers, adding that if people dig them up too soon, they may not have enough stored energy and nutrients to grow a strong plant the following year.
When Turner finally digs up her dahlias and uses a hose to wash them off, she lets the dahlia tubers sit and dry out for a little while before putting them in storage for the winter. She marks the bulbs with a code so she can keep track of them, wraps them in plastic wrap and then puts them in a cool place where the temperature does not exceed 55 degrees. Then they wait out the long, dark winter until spring comes around, when the whole process starts over again.
It sounds finicky, Turner acknowledges. But dahlias do not necessarily act like the divas they can resemble. Last year, her son threw some dahlia tubers that looked too dry to grow into his compost pile, where — naturally — they took root.
“They’re pretty amazing,” she said. “Plants want to grow.”
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.