Summer-blooming bulbs — caladiums, tuberous begonias, elephant’s ears, dahlias, and more — are gorgeous but can be expensive if you buy them year after year, so consider saving them.
You can hardly have too many. They’re in their glory in late summer, adding color and lush foliage to gardens when other plants are starting to look tired. But summer bulbs won’t overwinter in the ground in Iowa, so you need to plant them each spring.
You can buy them as established plants or as bulbs (or tubers, or corms, technically, depending on the plant), to plant outside in the ground in May. If you want to treat them as an annual, in the fall, you can leave them in the ground, where winter cold and wet will eventually kill them.
Better yet, if you want to expend slightly more effort, you can save them over the winter. Here’s how:
• Now, before the ground freezes, dig up the plants. Trim off the top, leaving a couple of inches or two of stalk. Be careful and gentle, of course. Gently brush off excess dirt and mud with your hands, but don’t wash them. That would encourage rot. If any are damaged or show sign of serious insect infestation, such as holes, pitch them.
• Allow them to dry thoroughly or “cure.” Do this in a warm, dry spot, like your basement or a heated garage. If there’s just a few of them, put them in a bucket. If there are more, spread them out in a cardboard box or on newspaper. Key is air circulating freely around them.
• After two to three weeks, bag them up in paper bags or boxes. Pack them in peat moss, sawdust, or crumpled or shredded paper and make sure they don’t touch each other. Label as desired. Store in a cool spot that stays about 45 to 50 degrees.
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• Check the bulbs periodically, every couple of weeks or so. Remove any rotting or moldy bulbs. Sprinkle again with water or refill bowl.
In spring, plant outside after all danger of frost has passed in our area—May 10. If any of the bulbs or tubers are large, you can divide them by gently breaking them apart, but make sure each one has some sprouting points as well as some roots.
For earlier bloom and larger foliage sooner, around April 1, plant them indoors in temporary plastic pots and potting soil. Provide as much sun and light as you can. Bonus points if, after the foliage is an inch or two high, you can set them outside during the day so they can soak up as much sun as possible. Bring indoors on nights when the temperature is going to dip past 35 degrees.
In May, plant outside in their permanent place in the garden, and sit back to enjoy their show another year.
• Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at theiowagardener.com.
Favorite summer-blooming bulbs
• Calla lily
• Elephant’s Ear
• Summer hyacinth (Galtonia)
• Tuberous Begonia