Foliage on Spring Flowering Bulbs

Tulips, daffodils, hyacinth and crocus are great for spring color.  Nothing says spring like these bulbs.  In order to keep them coming back strong year after year, one or maybe two steps are required after bloom.  What are they? 

First, clip off the faded flower and leave the foliage in place in the landscape bed.  What?  The foliage is kinda drab…and worse yet, after a 3-4 weeks actually starts browning.  I’m supposed to leave it in place?  The answer: Yes.  Think about it…in order for these plants to produce vibrant flowers in the spring, they need to be supported by lots of stored carbohydrates in the bulb.  Though it doesn’t happen exactly this way, it’s helpful to think about the bulb being drained of its energy during flowering.  The way that the bulb’s energy is restored is by allowing the leaves to remain in place and photosynthesize, which produces sugars and carbohydrates in the leaves, which later get moved back to the bulb.

The second optional step is to lightly fertilize the plants after flowering to enhance leaf growth.  A third to half rate of an all-purpose garden fertilizer will enhance the rehabilitation of the bulbs and help them produce attractive flowers the following spring.  The determination of whether to take this additional step is to evaluate the foliage after flowering.  If it’s thin and underdeveloped, then fertilize; if not, don’t. 

Once the foliage has faded to a point where more than half of the leaves are brown, the bulk of the photosynthesis has concluded and they can be clipped off at the base and composted.  Because this may leave the garden a bit on the bare side, a late planting of annuals will help bring back some aesthetic quality to the space.

John Fech
Horticulture Extension Educator at Nebraska Extension
John Fech is a horticulturist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture. The author of 2 books and over 200 popular and trade journal articles, he focuses his time on teaching effective landscape maintenance techniques, water conservation, diagnosing turf and ornamental problems and encouraging effective bilingual communication in the green industry. He works extensively with the media to extend the message of landscape sustainability, making over 100 television and radio appearances each year.
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