Column: Seeds & Stems

A primer on summer-blooming bulbs
Marianne Rzepka

Marianne Rzepka

We have had a whole bunch of the stuff that brings May flowers in the past few weeks, so a lot of gardeners have spent time indoors, hoping that the necessary showers won’t wash out the tender tulips, daffodils, crocuses and other spring-blooming bulbs that have already started to bloom.

Some would-be gardeners wish they had some showy spring bulbs to worry about. But though they missed the first wave of fall-planted bulbs, they shouldn’t worry, because they can plant some summer-blooming
flora now.

These bulbs, tubers and corms give a great show when they bloom. The downside is they can’t survive our tough winters. That’s why we have to put them in the ground in the spring. Some bulbs need some cold weather before they’ll bloom, and that’s why Miami doesn’t have a tulip festival. But summer-bloomers like gladiolas, dahlia, calla and canna just can’t take that kind of refrigeration. Leave them in the ground through the winter and you’ll most likely get squat the next summer.

If you’ve got lots of time in the fall, dig them up, store them in a cool basement and plant them again the next year. Or just treat them like annuals, planting them, along with the pansies and impatiens, in the spring.

Barb and Tom Kraft usually plant some canna in pots on their deck. They don’t have a lot of other spring-blooming bulbs, because they’re often too busy selling them just when they should be planting them.

Tom works for Vandenberg Bulb Inc., a family-based business in Howell that operates as a distributor for plants and garden supplies. Besides the spring-blooming bulbs, the company also offers perennials such as hostas, bleeding heart and astilbe. It’s a wholesaler, but you can find its products in stores in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Tom  started working for the now-defunct Neilsen’s greenhouses when he was still in high school, went to horticultural school in Chicago and was a grower for several greenhouses before he started his job with Vandenberg.

Barb and Tom Kraft

Barb and Tom Kraft

You can find Barb at Downtown Home & Garden in downtown Ann Arbor. Local gardeners know Downtown Home & Garden as the place where they can just pull into the former feed mill’s 100-year-old building to load up bags of compost, mulch or fertilizer. Just don’t run over any of those other pesky customers.

(Full disclosure: The Krafts live about two blocks from me, near Argo Park. Their two sons, now students at Michigan Technical University, delivered my Ann Arbor News years ago.)

Except for some miniature gladiolas, Tom couldn’t think of a spring-planted bulb that could reliably stay in the ground through the winter. If we have a mild winter or the bulbs are in a protected spot where the ground won’t freeze, you might see a gladiola or calla come up again the next spring.

Otherwise, if you want to see them again, you’ll have to dig up the bulb, corm or tuber in the fall, then store them somewhere they won’t freeze, sprout or grow mold until spring comes around again. Even now, you could wait a little before planting. The ground’s not likely to freeze again this year, but the bulbs won’t really start growing until the ground gets a little warmer, said Tom. And the longer they sit in the ground, the more likely that rot will set in.

If you want, you can start these bulbs off in pots and plant them when it gets warmer out, Tom said. Gladiolas and cannas are pretty easy to grow and can cost from $1.99 to $4.99 for fancier varieties, such as the striped Bengal Tiger canna. At  that price, you won’t go broke if you forget to water them in the heat of the summer or passing deer eat them to the ground.

Dahlias are a bit pricier and more fragile, Barb said. “You have to spend time with them.”

Elephant ear, a caladium, might be tempting for new gardeners, but Tom says it is a bit of a challenge. It grows quite slowly and needs a lot of warm temperatures to look like the plants you see in the advertising.

You won’t find that kind of climate in Michigan, and that’s why the annual caladium festival is in Lake Placid, Florida. 

About the writer: Marianne Rzepka, former reporter for the Ann Arbor News and Detroit Free Press, is a Master Gardener who lives in Ann Arbor and thinks it’s fun to turn the compost pile.