Monthly tips – July

Lifting Bulbs

Having mulled over the subject since being asked to prepare these notes I have come up with my own set of questions and hopefully some answers.

WHY: If bulbs grew well in the current year, why disturb them?  More bulbs die out of the ground than ever die in it.  Decorative plantings will benefit for being left several years without disturbance and only need lifting when the flowers start to get fewer due to overcrowding.  When growing for show two years down is considered the optimum and three years at most, after which blooms will lose size due to overcrowding.

WHEN: Lifting should be done in the dormant period when last year’s growth has ceased and before the new root growth begins.  An old adage states “commence lifting on American Independence Day (4 July) and be planted up by The Glorious Twelfth (12 August).  This is sound guidance but there will often be limitations due the cultivars or the weather.

N. poeticus probably never stops growing and it is best transplanted “in the green”.  With this in mind it is always better to lift early rather than late and certainly once the leaves have gone over lifting should commence.  The worst case scenario is to lift when the new white roots are emerging.  If these are lost, they will not re-grow.

WHERE: Lifting should never begin until the new site is prepared and ready.  Such ground should have been daffodil free for as long as possible and certainly should not have been infested with basal rot (or even worse).  Finding fresh uncontaminated ground is the daffodil grower’s biggest problem.

Guy Wilson advocated following the potatoes, though in his case this did not mean waiting until the potatoes were cleared in September, but the previous year’s crop where the land had been left fallow for 10 months or so.  If we follow this year’s potatoes we have the problem of keeping bulbs healthy for three months or more.  Commercially, on the Lincolnshire Fens, Johnnie Walkers likes to follow a crop of peas (slow release nitrogen).

HOW: Place a plank across the bed and stand on it to lift one row at a time using a spade (bulbs fall through the tines of a fork).  Now seize the best opportunity you will get to assess the health of your stock.  Anything dodgy should be discarded – they never get better.  Screw off (don’t cut) the remnants of the leaves and the old roots (which should be robust and stringy) to within a couple of inches of the root plate.  In doing so the utmost care must be taken not to pull or put pressure on the root plate.  It easily pulls away from the bulb and then disease is inevitable.  It is interesting to note here that Dutch bulbs never have the roots disturbed and are allowed to dry on the bulb.  Keep the stem and root debris separate for burning.  The roots should be radiating evenly from the root plate and the bulb should feel solid with no softness in the neck.  Beware the temptation to detach an offset that has not separated fully from the mother bulb.  Where the offset is only loosely connected by the basal plate a sharp knife can be used to cut it free.  The knife should then be returned to a sterilising medium and sulphur applied to the fresh cut surfaces of the root plate.

WHAT TO DO NEXT: My ideal scenario would be to have next year’s bed and any pots required ready and waiting so that after assessing the stock of a particular cultivar, including any knocked out of pots, the new bed plus fresh pots can be replanted before the next cultivar is lifted – within minutes!  Any excess bulbs would be put into net bags and stored using a cold fan.  As the bulbs are positioned in the new bed or pots a hand spray of fungicide is a useful ploy.

POSTSCRIPT: In the foregoing I have tried to convey an attitude of total hygiene. My remit here is not to discuss diseases etc but basal rot, viruses and eelworm are spread by particles we cannot see, especially in an aqueous environment.  Washing bulbs to me seems a dangerous proposition.  It simply provides a medium in which all the nasties can be shared around besides introducing a drying problem.  Why wash the muck off a bulb that’s going to be replanted in muck?  I certainly never had any aspirations to polish up a “ripened” bulb for resale.

Hot Water Treatment is a different proposition, providing it’s done correctly, though it still leaves the task of drying unless you plant direct.  Trying to shortcut HWT through lower temperatures and shorter times become the same as the simple washing just discussed.

Only by adopting the immediate planting procedure I have described did I finally come to terms with basal rot.  Nothing is more frustrating than having a good lift, only to be confronted with rotten bulbs when you come to plant several weeks later.  The key to making the system work is the planning and foresight to get the reception area ready before lifting begins.  Failing this, use nets or trays to expose the bulbs to a continuous blast of cold air.

Richard Smales

3 thoughts on “Monthly tips – July”

  1. Thank you Richard for your posting.
    Since Wendy and I started digging up and replanting the daffodils row by row where we have just dug up the Florists’ Tulips basal rot has become a thing of the past. We don’t use any chemical controls and as the beds were planted with tulips where the potatoes were the year previosly, the soil is in good heart. I have planted 36 rows (12 to a row) over the past four days and despite the lack of water in the Spring all the cultivars have done well with the exception of ‘John Emmett’. I throw a handful of Growmore and a handful of a high potash fertiliser in each row and that seems to do the trick. We grow on a one year down only regime as the tulips HAVE to be dug up each year and it is the only way to ensure a good rotation if everything is on a one year cycle. It ensures that that there is a four year gap before an item goes back in the same bed.

    James Akers

  2. Advice please. Have planted loads of daffodils. Bulbs bought from a reutable supplier. All have grown without producing flowers. Believe called Daffodil blindness. What have I done wrong?

  3. Hi William, sorry to hear about your non-flowering bulbs. You don’t say how long they have been planted but first year down bulbs from a reputable supplier should all contain the flower for the following year. As the foliage starts to die back naturally all the energy from the leaves, stalk and flower goes back into the dormant bulb to form next year’s flower. The main thing that would prevent the new flower forming would be cutting or tying up the foliage before this had taken place. Experiments have shown that six weeks from flowering is the optimum time needed to ensure a flower for the following year. After that the foliage can be removed safely. So it’s down to the treatment they received before you bought them as to whether they will flower. After that of course it’s up to you. Daffodils are hardy bulbs and given a minimum of TLC will form clumps and flower reliably each year. Large clumps can be split eventually and replanted with some high potash feed. In North Yorkshire you can visit Constable Burton in Wensleydale in April where there are many daffodils flowering that were planted in the 1930’s and which have formed huge clumps growing among tall trees. All the best for flowers from now on.

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