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Save Your Tender Flower Bulbs | Fall 2007 Out Here Magazine

Preserve the best showstoppers and keep some green in your pocket, too

By Amber Stephens

Photography by Donnie Beauchamp

Fall is the time to put spring bulbs into the ground — and take summer's tender bulbs out.

While hardy bulbs, such as hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, and crocus need the cold cycle to thrive, tender bulbs and tubers, such as dahlias, cannas, calla lilies, caladiums, and gladioli are often damaged or die in winter.

By overwintering bulbs, you can ensure their return next year.

Getting Started

Before digging, check with a local garden center or extension agent to determine the tender bulbs and tubers in your area. Many that are tender in northern hardiness zones will survive southern winters, but there are no guarantees.

A few days before the first killing frost, tag plants, marking their name and color, advises Barbara Arnold, horticulture designer for Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio.

Cut back the plants for easier handling and storage, Arnold says. An exception to this is the dahlia, which needs at least a 3-inch stem point to regrow.

Using a garden fork, begin digging a few inches out from the plant and gently pry the plant free from the soil. Don't worry if some roots break or the fork goes through a bulb, Arnold says.

Shake It Off and Box It

Once you dig up the plant, shake off excess dirt for most bulbs. The tender dahlia, however, will need a little extra dirt to prevent drying. After trimming off excess plant material, label the bulb or tuber so you know what you're planting next spring.

Arnold prefers using bulb crates, but a milk or wooden crate will work just fine, she says.

So will a cardboard box with a taped or reinforced bottom. Keep a cardboard box from soaking up moisture by letting the bulbs air out a few days before storing, Arnold says. Do not use plastic bags to store bulbs.

Arnold also suggests lining crates or boxes with burlap to catch extra dirt and using paper to wrap small caladium bulbs to hold them together.


Tender bulbs and tubers need to be stored someplace warmer than 40 degrees. "No unheated garages," she says. A root cellar, basement, or even guest rooms can be ideal storage spaces.

Bulbs are essentially hibernating, but they still need moisture. "In January, I always give them a drink of water," Arnold says. Don't soak the bulbs; a simple sprinkle with a watering can should prevent drying.


When the weather turns favorable in spring, take the bulbs outside on warm days to acclimate them to outdoor temperatures. This is also a good time to separate bulbs. "They are fairly easy to do with just your hands, kind of like how you would shred chicken, but not as vigorously," Arnold says.

Once the soil temperature is more than 60 degrees, they can be planted. Don't be in a rush to plant bulbs and tubers before the ground has had a chance to warm sufficiently, even if the air temperature has been unseasonably warm.

"In reality, there's nothing sadder than planting caladiums and then sitting there with nothing," Arnold says, "because the soil is too cold."

Amber Stephens is a writer from Amanda, Ohio.