IN THE GARDEN: Bulb season is upon us

Monday, August 28, 2017 - 13:42

It’s bulb planting time in Alaska

Some call bulbs the complete plant. I like that description and when realized that these plants can survive through the miracle of adaptation to many different environments and especially ours I want to know more.

Bulbs are a diverse group of plants that store enough food to nourish their blossoms and leaves throughout the growing period. But bulbous plants will not flower again unless their leaves that are left over after their blooming period, and are allowed to remain intact to gather starches and sugars through the process of photosynthesis. The process of photosynthesis allows the plant to replenish the deleted food supply of the bulb for the coming year. A mistake some gardeners make is to cut off the floppy green leaves to make their gardens look better. This ripening period of the bulbs is needed to build the strength of next year’s floral display. If you must cut the leaves, wait until they have yellowed and withered as the bulb is still strengthening underground.

When then is the best time to plant spring flowering bulbs in Alaska? In my research, I found that the best time for us is three weeks before our freezing temperatures set in. After the bulbs are planted, they need this time to grow strong roots to ready themselves for spring.

When shopping for bulbs, you want to deal with reputable firms, nurseries and bulb catalog companies. Do your homework on this. I planted 90 bulbs one year and was so excited for spring and only 2 came up. Examine the bulbs and make sure they are firm and not dried out. When you see a package of 50-100 bulbs for $9.98, just walk away. It is better to pay a little more for quality bulbs that will come back year after year and multiply then to buy in bulk dried out bulbs. Trust me on this one.

There are different kinds of bulbs:

True Bulbs are a complete plant encased in what is called, fleshy modified leaves called scales that cover the bulb and also dry papery leaves called a tunic, underneath these are the stores of food for the plant. At the bottom of the bulb is a disk of hardened stem tissue that is called the basal plate. It is this plate where the new growth will emerge and roots come from. This part of the bulb is placed in the hole to come in contact with the soil.


A corm is the base of a stem that becomes swollen and solid with nutrients. This bulb has no fleshy scales, but is covered by one or two dry leaves. Corms also have a basal plate in which their new roots will grow. The corm’s energy is completely used up during the growing period. Corms will perpetuate themselves by simultaneously making new corms on either side or the top of the original bulb.


The tubers will store their food in an underground stem. The difference between the tubers and true bulbs and corms is that there is no covering of dried leaves and no basal plate from which roots would grow. The tubers grow from a thick root that generates many roots from its surface. Buds or eyes grow from the surface of the tubers and these produce new growth.

Tuberous roots

The tuberous root is one that its food supply is kept in the root tissue, not in the stem or leave tissue as is the case with other bulbs. These roots draw moisture in through the fibrous system of roots that take in nutrition and moisture from the surrounding ground. A Dahlia is an example of a tuberous root. The crown is the neck of the root and this is where the buds are located and the new plant emerges.


A rhizome is a thickened stem that grows horizontally just under the surface of the soil. There are buds along this stem that sends up shoots to the surface and a new plant grows.

When planting your bulbs, follow the directions of the grower. A fertilizer that is most recommended is bone meal. After you prepare the hole, a teaspoon of bone meal scratched in the bottom will give your bulbs a good start. Bone meal is a slow acting source of phosphorus. Cow manure mulch is also a good source of organic fertilizer. An inorganic fertilizer with a good balance for bulbs would be 5-10-5. Bulbs prefer a slightly acidic soil and a pH of 6.0-6.8.

As fall quickly sets in, time can get away from us and the window for successful bulb planting quietly slips away. Plant now to get these spring beauties bedded in for spring. Next spring, you will be greeted with beautiful flowers, frequently the first to emerge from our melting snow covered ground.

Chris Wood is a certified master gardener who lives in Eagle River. Email questions or story ideas to [email protected]

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