“Those beautiful plants that grew this year will all come back by themselves next year, won’t they?”
“Which summer plants do you mean, Dear?”
“Oh, the dahlias, cannas, elephant ears, begonias and especially the gladiolas.”
“No, Dear, those non-hardy bulbs will not survive the winter in Kansas.”
“Well, we must do something, I love those flowers!”
I started packing and calling realtors when she intervened again. “What are you doing?”
“Preparing to move to South Texas where they will all be fine.”
“We can’t move; our grandchildren are here! We must do something here to rescue them.”
I found her use of the word “we” severely euphemistic.
Gardeners, at all levels, use the description "bulb" as a generic classification for true bulbs (caladium, elephant ear), rhizomes (Canna), corms (Gladiolas) and tubers (dahlia, tuberous begonia). All but a few of these bulbs need a cold rest period before they can grow and bloom again.
This period of rest occurs during the winter months, and Kansas winters cause the ground to freeze deep and damage the bulb. So the true answer to these blooming next year is to have them in a USDA Zone 10, or higher, part of the country. This would put you easily in South Texas, California or Florida.
Most of us will say, “Moving is not possible.” Others would say, “Just treat them as annuals and buy new ones next year.” Others would ask, “Can these non-hardy members of the plant kingdom be rescued?”
The answer to the question is yes, but there is not a guaranteed method. Here are some options that have proven favorable to the bulb rescue:
As the foliage starts to die back in the fall, and certainly after the first good freeze, the tops will yellow and die back. Leave the tops on and dig up the bulbs using a good shovel or potato fork. This should be done very carefully as these rooting structures may have grown and be much larger than originally planted. The goal here is to get the "bulb" without the damage. I leave the tops on so I can find where each bulb should be, and help in the plant identification.
As you dig, prepare some kind of label or marker for the bulbs. I place the excavated bulbs in separate sacks and label the sacks. Once labeled (and you can even write on the bulb itself) cut off the tops to within 1 to 2 inches, again taking care not to damage the bulb.
Move them to a dry, well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight. Spread them out to avoid physical contact and allow them to dry for at least three days. More is acceptable. The goal is to dry the attached soil.
When dry, carefully remove as much soil as possible. Some methods say to wash the bulbs. They must be completely dry before storage, so why the extra step? As you clean, remove any bulb that is damaged or has any sign of disease or rot. A fungicide powder (Bordeaux mixture or sulphur) can be applied as a preventative, but it is not necessary.
Place each group of bulbs in a container that allows some air movement (paper bags, mesh bags, open plastic with multiple holes, even old clean unglazed clay pots). Using pearlite, dry sand, peat moss or sawdust, submerge the bulbs completely while not allowing them to touch. Label each container appropriately.
Dahlia tubers mustn't dry out completely; moisten the packing material slightly. Place the container in a cool (45 to 50 degree) area of the dry basement or garage. Do not let them freeze. Check on these stored bulbs occasionally and discard any individuals that show signs of disease or rot.
Before you plant in the spring, call the Realtors back and cancel the listing, unpack your bags and understand that you saved some money. But beware of spring fever. The soil must be above 50 degrees before replanting your rescued bulbs.
Stan Ring is the Horticulture Program Assistant for K-State Research and Extension in Douglas County. Extension Master Gardeners can help with your gardening questions at 843-7058 or firstname.lastname@example.org.