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10 neat things about bulbs

Begonia The Green Spot

Begonia. photo: The Ultimate Guide to Cold Weather Gardening

1. Fat little storage houses.

Bulb, corm, tuber or rhizome, the fleshy underground roots of bulbous plants are really storehouses of food that is there to sustain the plant in the coming year.

2. The true bulb.

Bulbs also contain miniature flowers for the coming year. The bulb has layers (think of an onion) of food around its heart.

These are modified leaves filled with food for the plant. Each year, these outer layers get used up, but new ones form in the bulb from the inside out.


Bulbs also produce offsets, little bulb lets that will grow from the basal plate and eventually produce their own flowers.

Tulips, daffodils, allium, lilies, calla lilies, hyacinths, garlic and snowdrops are all bulbs.

3. Corms.

Corms are similar to bulbs but they have no layers and are usually flatter in appearance.

They too produce offset cormels from their basal plates, but each year the corm is used up and a new corm forms on top.

Gladiolas and spring crocuses grow from corms.

4. Tubers.

Think potatoes when you think tubers. They have no basal plates and, instead, send out new growth from growing points called eyes.

Tuberous begonias and caladium grow from tubers. Tubers don’t put out offsets but just get bigger each year, developing more eyes.

There are also tuberous roots that simply act as storage bins for more food for the mother plant.

Tuberous begonias, elephant ears and dahlias grow from tubers.

5. Rhizomes.

Rhizomes are fleshy roots that grow sideways, sending up-new shoots along the stem. They like to be planted shallowly so that they can send their shoots up.

They spread rapidly because each new shoot can develop roots and shoots of its own. Think iris, lily-of-the-valley, rhizomatus begonias, canna and ginger.

6. Plant me in the fall, see me in the springtime.

The term ‘fall bulb’ can be confusing to new gardeners. Counter-intuitively, it refers to the planting time rather than the blooming time.

Included in this list would be tulips, daffodils, allium, lilies and hyacinths. For the same reason, some bulbs, such as garlic, need to be planted in fall for a crop the following year.

There are also fall-blooming bulbs and crocus,including colchicum, that need to be planted the previous fall to bloom a year later.

7. Plant me in the spring, see me in the summer.

Gladiolas, dahlias and crocosmia should be planted in springtime to bloom in the summer.

But there are other spectacular flowers worth popping into the ground in spring for summer colour.

Try the fantastic black and white Acidanthera or peacock lily, the glamorous white to pink tuberose and sweet smelling freesia.

Once-common four o’clocks that open at that time of day into a glorious rainbow of colour are also worth a try.

All three bulbs have to be lifted in fall and stored over winter if you want them to bloom again the following year.

8. High and dry.

Most bulbs (there are exceptions) prefer a well drained soil and fairly dry conditions throughout the summer.

Too much moisture can rot the bulbs. When you plant fertilize with a granular, slow release fertilizer or bone meal.

9. Return of the tulips – or not.

As a rule of thumb in our climate, plan on planting new tulip bulbs every year.

You may get some of them (non-species types) back for a year or two.

But they never show as well as they did year one unless you are a master at coddling them.

For best results when you are encouraging tulip return, do not remove their leaves until they have yellowed and withered and come away from the bulb with a light tug.

The exception to the rule is species tulips, the shorter, original plant from which the tall Darwins and other hybrids were bred.

They are quite reliable returners. Look for Tulipa kaufmanniana, T. Clusiana, T. Turkestanica or T. Tarda. They need lots of sun and well-drained soil.

10. Darling daffodils.

If you get your tulips to behave and come back blooming every year they soon need to be divided or they start to decline.

The same is true of daffodils, but they are happy to build up clumps for quite a number of years, and they are very reliable re-bloomers.

As with tulips, different varieties bloom at different times in spring. Get an array of blooming times to extend the season.

The Ultimate Guide to Cold Climate Gardening by Bernie Whetter, owner of The Green Spot



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Pet Pals

Lily the dog jumping


Chasing flies.

photograph by Graham Street

(Lily is the pet pal of Marsha and Graham Street)


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Ilse Mohn, assistant manager, Hedley's Health Hut natural health products

Ilse Mohn , assistant manager, Hedley’s Health Hut

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