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Storing Summer Bulbs

Storing Summer Bulbs

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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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Finding the perfect time to take care of all the garden tasks is sometimes tricky.

Record high temperatures near the end of September gave many a false sense of security and lulled us into thinking that we had all the time in the world to get the gardening chores done.

Unfortunately, the temperature changed suddenly. Fortunately, the first frost of the season won't kill the plants that we will address in this column.

In general, these plants are called summer bulbs. They are not truly bulbs but are an eclectic mix of tubers, tuberous roots, corms and other vegetative propagation structures. They are tender, meaning they cannot survive the winter if left outdoors.

To get some good information on how to handle these plants, I visited with Tom Hill, a landscape-maintenance specialist for Utah County. Among the properties he maintains is the historic county courthouse in Utah County.

Hill got his start in horticulture by taking agriculture classes from Adrian Hinton, the Utah State University Extension Agent in Utah County, at Mesa High School in Arizona.

He then attended Arizona State University in Ag Ed, taught school and did landscaping for a while before taking the job with Utah County.

When asked why he digs up and saves his summer bulbs, he explained that it's easy to do and it saves a lot of money. "We primarily save our cannas and dahlias," he said. "We tried some begonias a few years, but we didn't have a lot of luck with these."

He also explained his timing: "We need to get the plants out in the fall so we can plant the pansies. We don't want to wait too late to do that."

He starts by digging the cannas or dahlias and then removing the tops of the plants. He advises to shake off as much soil as you can and then set them out to dry in the sun for several days. "Do not wash them, as that might start them rotting," he said.

The cannas are stored in large crates. "We put a layer of wood shavings on the bottom and then add the canna rhizomes and then keep adding more shavings on top. We keep these crates in a garage, where they do not freeze during the winter."

The dahlias take a little more care to store.

"With the dahlias, I cut them apart before we store them, as they rot a lot more easily. I then keep them drying in the sun longer than the cannas. I try to wait until they are just about to start to shrivel.

"(Dahlias) need a higher humidity than the cannas during the winter so they don't dry out too much. We use wood shavings that are lightly moistened, and then we check these and sprinkle them lightly with water if needed."

Of course, storing the bulbs is only part of the picture. Getting the plants growing for his garden in the spring is another challenge.

"I pot up the cannas and dahlias about the first part of April in potting soil and then put them in a cold frame so they can be ready to grow and set out in the spring. It is a great way to start plants," he said. "With the cannas, we have about a 90 percent success rate. With the dahlias, it is a little less, but we still have a 60 to 70 percent success rate."

There are a few other plants that need to be dug up and stored. As mentioned, begonias are even more difficult than cannas or dahlias. If they dry or shrivel, they won't grow. Keep them moist but do not let them get too wet, because they rot in storage.

Calla lilies, caladiums and elephant ears are also tender plant that must be dug up and stored carefully. Use the same method as for storing begonias.

Gladioli are among the easiest to store. Dig the large corms and let them dry for a few days. Remove the tops, and store them in cardboard boxes, wire-screen trays or even mesh sacks. They do not need to be covered, but they, like the others, must be kept from freezing.

Many summer blooming "bulbs" can stay in the ground. These include Asiatic and Oriental lilies, daylilies, crocosmia, liatris and others.

Cut back the tops after they freeze and compost them, but leave the rest of the plant in the soil.

Even though the tops might have frozen on your plants, you can still salvage them. The soil protects underground parts of the flowers until it gets really cold, so salvaging these bulbs is possible. Don't wait too long, because it is messy to shovel off the snow to get to them.

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Larry A. Sagers


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