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Spring-flowering bulbs are some of the most beloved plants of all time. This group includes favorites such as tulips, daffodils, crocus, and hyacinths. Blooming throughout the spring months, these special plants produce bright, cheery, and often fragrant flowers that herald the return of warmer weather.
So...why are we focusing on spring-blooming bulbs in September? Since most of these bulbs need to experience a period of cold weather in order to bloom, fall planting ensures a spectacular spring show.What is a Bulb?
The word "bulb" is loosely used by gardeners to describe plants growing from an underground mass of food storage tissues. Bulbs store enough food to enable the plants to grow and flower without added nutrients during the first year. To help students to relate to this concept, tell them the storage tissue is like the bulb’s lunch box, packed with enough food for the whole growing season!
Botanically speaking, a bulb is a modified stem containing a complete miniature plant, including embryonic leaf, stem, and flower parts, and surrounded by fleshy scales (which provide food for the young plant) and a basal plate (which produces roots). Bulbs are also surrounded by a thin protective layer called a tunic. Tulips, daffodils, and onions are true bulbs . If you slice a bulb in half horizontally, you'll see rings formed by the scales, and if you are looking at one close to planting time, you'll see a small plant in the center (an onion left in storage for too long makes a great example).
Some other plants we call bulbs, such as crocus, iris, and dahlias, aren't true bulbs because they have different botanical structures than those listed above. Technically, crocus and gladiolus are corms . What's the difference? A corm stores most of its food in an enlarged basal plate rather than in its scales. Tubers , such as dahlias and tuberous begonias, sprout new stems and roots from “eyes” on their surface. And rhizomes , such as iris, calla lilies, and cannas are horizontal stems capable of producing shoots and roots. Click here to view line drawings illustrating these differences.
To a botanist, the distinction between these storage organs is very important and can provide information for scientific classification and offer clues about the origin and evolution of plants. But gardeners approach plants in a more practical sense. Because most of the plants with underground storage capacity rely on similar planting instructions, gardeners lump them all together as bulbs.Bulb Life Cycles
Bulbs are divided into two categories based on when they bloom. Spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils and tulips, are planted in the fall. They are also called hardy bulbs because they survive cold winter conditions. In fact, they need exposure to cold temperatures in order to flower properly. Summer-flowering bulbs, including dahlias, begonias and gladiolus, are planted in the spring. They are tender and do not survive cold winter conditi...
Forcing Bulbs Indoors
While much of the country now displays the brown hues of a late-fall landscape, you can create a vision of spring indoors by forcing bulbs. It’s a great activity for kids and a wonderful teachable moment. While kids usually know about bears and other wild creatures that hibernate in winter, they often don’t realize that many plants hibernate, too. Planting bulbs is a great way to teach them about plant dormancy, while simultaneously creating a beautiful indoor flower show this winter. Plus, forced bulbs are also a great gift idea.Create Your Early Spring Flower Show
Scour nurseries and garden centers for any remaining daffodil, tulip, hyacinth, crocus, and grape hyacinth bulbs they may still have. Often you’ll find bulbs on sale at this time of year. Squeeze the bulbs before buying them to be sure they are still plump and firm and not dried and shriveled. Fill 12-inch diameter clay or plastic pots with moistened potting mix. Place a selection of bulbs in the pots, planting large bulbs, such as daffodils and hyacinths, about 6 inches deep and smaller bulbs, such as tulips and crocus, just 3 to 4 inches deep. Position the bulbs so that they almost touch each other. You can grow just one kind of bulb per pot, or mix up varieties and types. Have your kids experiment to see which bulbs emerge and bloom first. Or decorate the pots before planting the bulbs, for gifts or just to personalize their indoor blooms.
Place the planted pots in a cool (32°F to 50°F), dark area for 12 to 16 weeks. A basement, unheated shed, or garage works best. This “resting” time in a cool, dark place convinces the bulbs they have experienced winter and they should be ready to start growing once they’re exposed to “sun” and “warmth.”Time to Flower
Check the bulbs in storage after about 3 months or when you notice shoots emerging and roots peeking through the drainage holes. Then bring the pots into a sunny, warm room. For the first week place them in a 55°F room to start growing. Keep them well watered. When bulb shoots are 2 inches tall, place them in a 68°F room. The bulbs should flower within one week. If you start winterizing your bulbs in November, most will be flowering in February.
If you don’t have room for storing potted bulbs in the house, place the loose bulbs in paper bags in the refrigerator crisper for 6 weeks. Then pot them up and store them in a 55°F room for one month before bringing them into a warmer, sunny room to bloom.
The warmer the room, t...