Problems With Spring Bulbs

Problems With Spring Bulbs

We’ve had a few emails recently about spring bulbs, so I thought I’d talk a bit about common problems and great bulbs for this region. (S.E. Massachusetts.)

One common problem people has is that their bulbs don’t come back and multiply as they expected they would. This could be the result of several situations.

  • Soil is too sandy. If your soil is pure sand six inches under the surface, there isn’t enough organic matter and nutrition to support bulbs from year to year. Plant bulbs in gardens where your soil has been deeply amended with organic matter, and mulch (or top-dress with an inch of compost) every year to keep soil amended.
  • Soil is low on nutrients. (Common with sandy soils.)  Scatter an organic fertilizer when you plant the bulbs (don’t put it only in the bottom of the hole! Scatter over the entire area where bulbs are planted.) and continue to apply fertilizer annually. If you haven’t applied an organic fertilizer early in the spring, use a liquid when the bulbs are coming up or right after the flowers fade.
  • Drought or wet soil. If bulbs are planted in an area that is dry all summer, they can shrivel up. If they are planted where irrigation systems or other water sources keep the area constantly wet, they might rot. Like most garden plants, bulbs do best if given a deep soaking every week to ten days. Hand watering is never deep enough, nor is ten or fifteen minutes of irrigation from an automatic system.
  • Too much shade. Bulbs need to produce energy to store in the bulbs so that they can multiply and bloom again next year. If you’re growing them in too much shade they won’t be able to store up enough energy for future seasons.
  • Animal or insect damage. This isn’t usually a problem in our area except when squirrels dig up the bulbs shortly after planting. For solutions to this problem, see below! But new pests are introduced all the time, and occasionally high populations of insects or animals are problematic on a short term basis.
  • Compact soil. If bulbs are planted in an area that has been compacted by heavy equipment or other causes, they might not be able to grow a strong root system and multiply. If you have a hard time digging into the ground, the bulbs will have a difficult time pushing roots out too.

Which bulbs are reliably perennial in this area?  Daffodils,(Narsissus)  if you look for varieties that are recommended for naturalizing and avoid fancy colors like peach and pink. Crocus (Crocus) snow drops, (Galanthus) grape hyacinths (Muscari) and large hyacinths (Hyacinthus) are also reliably perennial. Wood hyacinths (Hyacinthoides hispanica) self-seed and spread where they are happy, and Camassia are a May-flowering bulbs that is especially good in damp soils. 

Tulips are great for lifting your heart in the springtime, but with the exception of species varieties, they tend not to be long-lived. For the longest living tulips choose red or yellow Darwin hybrids.

If your bulbs are being dug up by squirrels, try the following:

1. Squirrels commonly dig bulbs because they sense disturbed soil. If you water the area well right after planting, they won’t notice that digging has taken place in the area. Or you can plant the bulbs in groups and then put a sheet of chicken wire over the top of the soil. Weight it down with rocks or logs and leave it in place for three or four weeks. At the end of that time, the soil should be settled by rainfall and you can remove the wire and store for the following year.

2. Dust the bulbs with cayenne pepper before planting, and sprinkle a red-pepper based animal repellant over the top of the soil after planting.

Daffodils are reliably perennial when planted in well amended soil.

Daffodils are reliably perennial when planted in well amended soil.

Tulips are not long-lived but they are so cheerful that we love them anyway!

Tulips are not long-lived but they are so cheerful that we love them anyway!


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  1. Evelyn Sommers on June 23, 2016 at 7:39 am

    Nan, help! What the heck is eating my garden, turkeys???? Something is after the Kale, munching on the leaves. Yesterday we had two beautiful sunflowers coming about a foot high with strong stalk, and now we have the strong stalk everything eaten. Also has started on the zucchini.Sigh!
    I can’t believe this is done by a munching catapillar. Any suggestions.
    Thank you

    • CLFornari on June 23, 2016 at 8:13 am

      Turkeys root around to get bugs and seeds, but don’t eat plants. You either have rabbits, wood chucks or deer. The fast response is to cover things with Harvest Guard, available at Country Garden, and weight it down with logs/rocks while you figure out which critter you’re up against.

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