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Storehouses of energy…the miracle of bulbs!

Ninety percent of the bulbs in home flower gardens belong to just 6 genera: Narcissus, Tulipa, Hyacinthus, Iris, Lilium and Gladiola.

Van_Gogh-basket with flower bulbs

Photo: public domain

Van Gogh's Basket with Flower Bulbs

Here in the Midwest United States we look forward so eagerly to our earliest garden flowers. They come from bulbs that we plant so hopefully in the fall and that stay dormant all winter under the snow. Ninety percent of the bulbs in home flower gardens belong to just 6 genera: Narcissus, Tulipa, Hyacinthus and Iris that bloom in the spring and the summer blooming Lilium and Gladiola.

All types of bulbs have one thing in common and that is that they are self contained storehouses of energy. They burst forth and bloom at their appointed time when the moisture and temperature levels trigger their respective awakenings. It is orchestrated in a way that seems quite miraculous.

After they finish flowering, they should be deadheaded to prevent them wasting their energy setting seed, as we want them to save their energy in the bulbs. That is also why they need to have their foliage left in place so that they can replenish (Note 1) their energy to provide food for next spring’s flowers. The leaves need to die down naturally (Note 2), and a little fertilizer applied during this period is an added bonus. Some experienced gardeners have told me that the fertilizer that farmers use for potato crops is an economical choice.

All bulbs are highly efficient and can be categorized into 5 groups: true bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes and tuberous roots. All are long lived in gardens and reproduce bulblets over time as long as rodents don’t discover them. Members of the Narcissus genus, however, are poisonous so do not make a tasty meal. So if you are troubled by rodents and deer in your garden, specialize in daffodils and see how many varieties (Note 3) you can find to showcase.


  1. Apply fertilizers that do not have an odor as the odor marks the location of the bulb for rodents and they dig them up. Granular fertilizers are one option.
  2. Plant perennials (e.g. day lilies) with bulbs so that their foliage grows up just as the bulb foliage is decaying in order to camouflage the yellowing leaves.
  3. Always plant early-, mid-, and late blooming varieties to extend the season of bloom.
Moya Andrews

, originally from Queensland, Australia, served as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculties at Indiana University until 2004. In the same year, Moya began hosting Focus on Flowers for WFIU. In addition, Moya does interviews for Profiles, is a member of the Bloomington Hospital Board, and authored Perennials Short and Tall from Indiana University Press.

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