How to Grow Bulbs, Corms, and Tubers for the Late-summer Garden


Sometimes, when visitors “ooh” and “ah” over bold dahlias, giant summer hya­cinths, and fragrant, mysterious acidanthera, I catch myself saying apologetically, “Oh, those—I can’t take credit for them. I just plant them and that’s what they do.” For a long time, I thought it was cheating to grow such easy flowers. It is, after all, simply a matter of planting them in early summer, lifting them in fall, and storing them over the winter. But where is it written that everything has to be difficult?

Growing these extravagant-looking flowers is the closest you’ll come to instant gratification in the garden. You can plan ahead and order by mail, or you can go to a garden store as late as May (but try in March or April for a better selection) and buy dahlia tubers, gladiolus corms, and summer hyacinth bulbs. Most are native to the warmer growing areas of the world, and in colder climes must be grown between frost dates. Planted in the garden at the end of May, they’ll give you glorious flowers from August until frost. Add to this the fact that they double or triple in quantity each season, and you have a collection of unbeatable plants.

Unkind things have been said about dahlias, most often about the enormous show blooms the size of dinner plates, so heavy and tall that they have to be rigidly tied to strong stakes. Even so, lashed to the mast, as it were, the huge heads still hang downward and after rain they’re a depressing sight. But dahlias come in a wonderful range of size, shape, and color, and there’s something for everybody.

I like my dahlias in modest sizes. A favorite for many years has been the cactus-flowered ‘Park Princess’, with rolled petals like quills, in rich pink. Another, more dramatic, dahlia is ‘Arabian Nights’. This is a taller plant whose three-inch flowers are in a smoky red so dark as to look black against the sky. I’ve enjoyed this in one part of the garden behind a second bloom of blue scabiosa and, in a shadier spot, with the pristine white Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’.

I don’t find storing the tubers too tiresome, and the rate at which they multiply gives me plenty to spread around and “pass along.”

Gladiolus, it seems, is one man’s meat and another man’s poison. The tall ones are hard to use gracefully, and are better grown in the cutting garden. But there are miniatures that will provide small pools of color in the late border, and the narrow, upright foliage is itself an attractive feature. My favorite in this family, though not a true gladiolus, is the so-called Abyssinian gladiolus (Acidantherd). The long-throated white flowers are blotched with chocolate-brown. It has a delicious fragrance and smells every bit as exotic as it looks.

Even more exotic, though without the fragrance, is the tiger or Mexican shell flower (Tigridid). Its vivid, spotted petals in yellow, red, and orange shades are of such brilliance that I would have expected the hummingbirds to be all over it. But they pass it by. North of Zone 6, the corms of all three of these late beauties must be dug and stored.

A more modest flower, though not in size, is the giant summer hyacinth (Galtonia candicans). Above the low, strappy foliage, flowers are held on strong stems, two to three feet tall, that hold up well on their own. The pendulous white bells are arranged in a spike. Although every reference mentions galtonia’s fragrance—and certainly the common name leads one to expect it—it has so far eluded me. Galtonia bulbs multiply generously and, like the corms and tubers, store easily over the winter.

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About the Author: Greenery always attracts Arthur Kunkle. He has a big garden where he plants many fruits and vegetables. His passion for gardening motivates him to write and share different tips on gardening.

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