bulbs and poor drainage

katob Z6ish, NE PaDecember 1, 2009

What are your experiences with bulbs and soil drainage? I used to have great draining soil but now garden on a slab of sticky clay.... well maybe it's not that bad, but the drainage is pretty crappy in that you'll see water come up as you walk around after a rain. It got real bad last summer as we had rain shower after rain shower after..... well there was no summer.

As I dug up daffs from the muck there were some spots where the soil even had a stagnant stink to it as I dug through. BUT... I had no daff, tulip, crocus, allium losses over winter. It was only some of the later bulbs that I dug in the summer (after they died back normally)that had rot to them. So what gives?

I always hear about bulbs needing a good draining spot to overwinter, but have only had trouble with this in container plantings. Has anyone out there had rotting bulbs due to poor drainage out in the garden?

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If NEPa was anything like piedmont Virginia last winter, it was very, very dry. I lost several perennials that were stressed by going through the winter without adequate moisture.

Just a thought.


    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 10:51AM
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calistoga_al ca 15 usda 9

I have noticed that growing bulbs with foliage and roots will seldom rot. Once they are just the bare bulbs they do tend to rot if the soil remains wet. Al

    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 4:03PM
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katob Z6ish, NE Pa

I'm not sure how the winter was. You may be right in that it was not nearly as wet as the summer was. So much for my theory!

I was kind of thinking along the lines of what Al pointed out - that if they are growing they can handle more water and saturated soil than when dormant. I guess that's why my amaryllis did ok the year they were on a drip emitter and got watered twice a day every day while sitting in a saucer of water. Not what I would consider ideal conditions, but it worked out fine..... better than if it was up to me to remember to water them!

    Bookmark   December 2, 2009 at 10:02PM
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vetivert8(NI-NZ zone 9a)

Sometimes on a heavy clay the bulbs will head for the surface and do what they always do - split into bulbils and produce lots of leaves and few flowers.

The only ones that like it cluggy seem to be the N papyraceus (paperwhites), and they dig down deeply to produce their big bulbs. They're happy and productive in stiff clay. However - they also hold their leaves for much longer than the other varieties.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2009 at 2:14AM
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donnabaskets(Zone 8a, Central MS)

I garden on extraordinarily tight clay. You're right. The stuff stinks until you work it enough to get it draining. The first year we lived here, I prepped one bed and planted tulips in it among other things. When tulip time came, no tulips. When I went out to check, I could smell the rot before I began digging around. Over the year, I have added lots of manure to the bed and now it's the best drained one on my property. It's where I put bulbs that I want to multiply quickly.

vetivert is right. There are some bulbs that don't seem to mind clay. I have found leucojum, lycoris radiata, and spanish hyacinths to be some of the most tolerant. It's tricky for me. I have to be mindful not only of winter drainage, but also summer wet. I have an in ground irrigation system and I have learned that many daffodils don't like it.

    Bookmark   December 3, 2009 at 3:18PM
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Maryl zone 7a

In my heavy clay soil I've learned to plant bulbs more shallowly then recommended. But then I live in a warmish climate so our freeze depths aren't what most of the bulb books are refering to when they say 6-8 inches deep. Lycoris Radiata is naturally planted on the shallow side so it survives and naturalizes pretty well here. The one spring bulb that has surprised me with how it adapts to almost any condition is the daffodil "Cassata". Once I even unintentionally buried them under mounds of our dug up clay soil, yet still for many springs to come (until I moved them) they popped up with their cheery flowers just as if they had the perfect soil to grow in.....Glads do well here too. Again I plant them more shallowly then recommended. If you are in a warmer climate, try planting more shallowly then most books would have you plant and see what happens. You might be surprised.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 2:58PM
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katob Z6ish, NE Pa

I guess I must improve the soil... I'm hoping that the wood chips on top will help, and I do know there seem to be more earthworms already working through the decaying wood.... but I did break down and turn over some of the more stagnant areas. Hopefully the work will be worth it.

I have to say that I don't think my soil can compare to Mississipi or Kansas clay! It's encouraging to know if you can grow decent bulbs there then ther is hope even for my soil.

    Bookmark   December 6, 2009 at 8:27PM
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donnabaskets(Zone 8a, Central MS)

You're right, maryl. I have learned to plant my bulbs more shallowly too. They definitely do better that way here. I wonder if this technique would be useful farther north, though. Frost and freeze might penetrate to the bulbs and ruin them???

    Bookmark   December 8, 2009 at 12:54PM
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Maryl zone 7a

I hate showing my ignorance Donna about such things, but I would think that the length of time a bulb spends frozen would be a factor in its survival. We do get cold weather here, way below freezing (tomorrow is supposed to be 11 degrees at night), but it doesn't stay all that cold for all that long. I know I over winter lots of potted plants outside (roses, daylilies, hostas etc) with about a 98% success rate, but they are not bulbs. The colder zone question is a good one Donna that I don't really have an answer to. Maybe someone in a colder zone then ours has some success stories with planting more shallowly. Zone 6 perhaps might get away with it for example.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2009 at 2:44PM
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katob Z6ish, NE Pa

Mary do you do anything special to your potted plants for the winter? I move mine under some shelter for a little protection, but that doesn't seem to be good enough for potted bulbs. I have extremely bad luck with potted bulbs outside.

Here in the wintery north we get enough frost to freeze the bulbs in the ground. Doesn't seem to damage them at all to be frozen solid... as long as they have had a chance to root in.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2009 at 6:20PM
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Maryl zone 7a

Kato, I think bulbs must be in a special catagory as far as their sustainability in pots go. The only bulbs I've ever tried to keep in pots were Glads and real Lilies. I did have some limited success with them, but only for a couple of seasons or so. This is the first year I've tried to do anything with spring bulbs in pots (Dafs and Muscari) and I looked for advice from Brent and Becky's. I was told that in my zone 7 I was to place the bulb pots on the coldest side of the house (north). So apparently frozen solid for awhile isn't a death sentence. Of course the proof is in the pudding so to speak and we will see what happens by next spring (if anything). Again, I'm zone 7 so the protection I need over winter for my herbaceous potted plants will be different then yours. The main thing I try and do is keep them from being exposed to the cold north wind, but I've had large pots (16-20")fully out in the open with roses in them that have survived. The smaller the pot the more vulnerable they seem to be and under 10 inches they get real iffy. A southern or western exposure is best if you can choose which side of the house to put them by...It does seem a shame that bulbs are so pot picky. With our clay soil it's just so hard to pass by all those beautiful tulips/dafs/Hyacinths in the fall.

    Bookmark   December 9, 2009 at 2:47PM
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kato: I took a workshop with Brent Heath yesterday. He plants differently now - bulbs on a bed of compost, then covered with several inches of mulch. A few minutes ago, I described this method in a thread called "# Recently planted bulbs (tulips?) already coming up." It may help.

    Bookmark   December 13, 2009 at 5:42PM
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brit5467(7b/8a Coastal VA)

Here's the tread Pam's talking about. You'll have to scroll quite a bit down to get to her post. Right now, her post should be next to the last, since I'm about to respond, mine will be last.

It's an interesting method and one I think I'm going to try, versus trying to dig in all the mud I have right now. And I, too, hit clay once I dig down about 8".

Bonnie aka brit5467

Here is a link that might be useful: Recently planted bulbs (TULIPS?) coming up

    Bookmark   December 14, 2009 at 5:08PM
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My yard sounds rather similar to yours,Kato b, it is quite wet in late winter/early spring especially and clay. I had been improving beds by digging deep and turning in anything I can find to amend--shredded newspaper, leaves, wood chips (one way in which Hurricane Ike was useful, lots of free wood chips!), and that has definitly helped. Now I am just piling stuff on top and turning it in as I plant things.
I do have success with tulips and glads overwintering; I plant them both about 8 inches deep--the tulips to keep them out of reach of squirrels- but I have also noticed that in the beds that are least improved, the tulips don't seem to last for more than 2-3 years, but in the one bed that is built up about 5- 7 inches above base level, with lots of sand, the tulips continue to thrive. I think that bed more closely mimics the native conditions of tulips. The glads are thriving in all the beds.

I have a friend who is from Ukraine, and she says that there everyone always lifts tulips to store over winter, and she continues to do that here.

    Bookmark   December 15, 2009 at 11:17AM
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katob Z6ish, NE Pa

Hi Raee, I was wondering how you do the shredded newspaper. I have a ton of newspapers but don't like the idea of shredding them dry. One time I let them get wet first and they were much easier to shred, but kinda clumpy. How do you do it?

    Bookmark   December 15, 2009 at 9:18PM
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Oh, while I am sitting watching TV I have a paper bag next to me and I just rip the day's paper up into bits, or fold it & cut it into strips with scissors. Keeps me from snacking! I have an extra lidded trash can outside; the shreds go in there until I'm ready to use them.

One time I crumpled them up and ran the lawnmover over them--like I would do with leaves--but they flew all over the place, not too successful!

    Bookmark   December 15, 2009 at 9:40PM
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katob Z6ish, NE Pa

I like your thinking with the lawnmower. It was worth a try right? Maybe I'll stick with the clumpiness of the wet paper. I don't get much tv in and there's a definite danger to having a bunch of shredded newspaper sitting around with a 1 and 3 year old on the prowl!

    Bookmark   December 16, 2009 at 9:40PM
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