Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Bulbs

Avoiding and Solving Common Bulb Problems

by National Gardening Association Editors


Follow these steps to prevent problems in your bulb patch.

  • Check bulbs before buying or planting: Make sure they're firm and free of corky lesions, mold, and soft spots. Plant in well-drained soil.
  • Plant in soil where disease hasn't been a problem.
  • Provide at least half a day of sun. Full sun is best in cool climates, but midday and afternoon shade are needed in hot climates.
  • Protect from pest animals.
  • Plant at correct depth.
  • Plant at correct time.
  • Mulch at proper time.
  • Buy the right varieties for your area's USDA Climate Zone.
  • Water after planting to jump-start root growth.
  • Fertilize at planting and during spring growth period.

Tools and Materials

The table below lists seven of the most common problems associated with crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, and tulip bulbs, see text below for recommended solutions.

Problem Bulbs affected Possible cause
Buds, leaves, blossoms eaten Crocus, tulip Deer, squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks
Bulbs are being dug up Crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, tulip Squirrels, chipmunks, skunks
Bulbs seem to disappear from the ground Crocus, tulip Mice, voles, gophers, chipmunks
Growth starts even though cold winter weather is still expected Crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, tulip Unseasonably warm weather
Leaves appear, but plants don't bloom Crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, tulip Not enough chilling; leaves removed too soon the previous year; poor soil fertility; not enough sun; some tulips are short-lived
Blossom stalks are short Daffodil, hyacinth, tulip Not enough chilling; unseasonably warm winter and spring temperatures
Over the years, fewer plants and blossoms appear Crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, tulip Decline due to overcrowding, poor soil fertility, increasing shade

Bulbs, leaves, blossoms eaten. Plant daffodils instead; they are unpalatable to animals. To deter smaller animals, use commercial or homemade repellents or scare tactics (dog or cat hair spread around bulb bed; hot pepper spray, flash tape or aluminum pie tins on twine, plastic scare owls or hawks). If deer are the problem, try a commercial deer repellent, or grow bulbs under protective netting supported by metal hoops or a wooden frame.

Bulbs are being dug up. Squirrels and chipmunks love to feast on crocus and tulip bulbs. Skunks dig in search of insects and worms but may also be attracted to organic fertilizers such as bone-, fish, or peanut meal. After planting, place hardware cloth, chicken wire, or other protective barrier over soil, and secure it in place. If skunks, cats, and dogs are troublesome, use well-decomposed organic amendments when planting.

Bulbs seem to disappear from the ground. If animals are the culprit, plant daffodils, which animals find inedible. To prevent pest animals from damaging bulbs, plant in an underground chicken wire cage. You can fashion your own, or purchase them ready made. Dry soil hinders root growth, causing bulbs to die and decompose instead of growing. Water well after planting, and roots should begin growing.

Growth starts even though cold winter weather is still expected. If bulbs haven't blossomed, they should weather the winter fine. Any blossoms and buds that emerge may suffer cold damage. Next fall, mulch the bulb bed just after the ground freezes in cool climates, and as temperatures reach winter time levels in warm climates.

Leaves appear, but plants don't bloom. In warm climates, choose varieties with low chilling requirements, and chill bulbs before planting. Allow leaves to remain in place until they fade completely. To hide fading foliage, plant companion annuals. If you aren't sure of a variety's longevity, ask the supplier before buying.

To improve soil fertility, fertilize at planting time. Each year in spring when plants are growing, spread an inch of compost, or feed with a low-nitrogen bulb fertilizer according to package directions. Bulbs need at least half a day of sun while the leaves are green (however, in warmest climates, afternoon shade is recommended).

Blossom stalks are short. Plant bulbs in the coolest area of your garden. In cool climates, mulch after ground freezes. In warm climates, plant low-chill varieties and mulch when winter temperatures are reached.

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