, Salem, MA

October 25, 2013

North Shore Gardener: Dig up and save bulbs after frost kills foliage

North Shore Gardener
Barbara Barger

---- — Q: Should I save the tuberous begonia I planted last spring?

A: While you are planting bulbs in the ground this month, don’t forget the tender bulbs that need to be taken out of the garden and brought inside for the winter. Tender bulbs, such as caladiums, tuberous begonias, glades, tuberoses and dahlias need to be lifted after the foliage is killed by the early frost if they are going to be saved for next year. Do not let the bulbs freeze! Air dry the bulbs thoroughly, remove the dead foliage and pack the bulbs away in a frost-free, airy cellar, garage or closet. Bulbs can also be kept in mesh bags or in dry peat moss or vermiculite. Check them over during the winter to be sure there is no rot. Check also for rodent damage if there are mice in the house.

Why bother to save tender bulbs from year to year? Why not just replace them?

Besides the cost saved by not replacing them, many bulbs grow larger and better with each season and will produce superior plants for you in the coming season. It’s worth the time, and it’s not much work to store them. But, please, do it before the foliage is completely gone and you can’t even locate or identify a treasured bulb.

Q: We’re planning to do a new vegetable garden next spring, and the space is really overrun with weeds. I’m trying to kill weeds using black plastic and, in my opinion, the cloth should be left over the area for probably three to four weeks, but my husband is saying two weeks is fine. We’re going through all this, and I want to do it right. Any opinion on the amount of time we should leave it on there?

A: Using black plastic to kill weeds will depend on sun exposure and air temperature, but I doubt that you can do it in two weeks. Many gardeners leave the plastic on over the winter. I hope you watered the area well before spreading the black plastic over the area. If not, pull the plastic back and water the ground now. Peeking under the plastic will also give you some idea as to how fast it’s working.

As the ground heats up, you will also be killing many of the weed seeds in the ground. Remember that now that the nights are getting colder, the area cools down each night and has to reheat each morning, so the colder it gets, the longer it’s going to take.

Tell your hubby that the more weeds and seeds he kills now, the fewer weeds he’ll have to dig and remove next season when he finally removes the plastic and begins cultivating and planting the area.

Q: This year, I promised myself that I would take the time to plant some spring bulbs, but I need some help — that is, information — because I’ve never done it, except for an old pot of tulip bulbs that I received for Easter, which I planted last year and only leaves came up. Can you help?

A: Start with the bulbs. Size counts when buying bulbs, particularly when you’re you buying bulbs by mail order. It pays to know the size of the bulbs you’re buying. Buy the biggest bulbs you can — bigger IS better. When you handle a bulb, compare it to buying an onion at the grocery store. Check for firmness and weight. There should be no soft spots or mildew. Even if the bulbs are packaged in bulk, in plastic or mesh bags, inspect them carefully. A small green sprout won’t hurt, but avoid buying packages that contain bulbs that look like they’re already growing and trying to escape.

Each bulb you buy has a perfectly formed flower in the center — if you want to sacrifice one bulb and cut it open, you can see for yourself — ready to grow and bloom for you this spring. Now all you have to do is plant it and the bulb will flower. For bloom in future years, you have to help the bulb to flower. It doesn’t take much. Just allow the foliage to grow and mature. Don’t cut it down, no matter how ratty it looks, until it turns brown and separates easily from the bulb. Add a sprinkle of fertilizer or bone meal each fall and water well after planting — that’s all there is to it. Do your planting correctly — you only have one chance.

Ready for gardening indoors?

There will always be one pot that needs repotting in February. Be ready — take the time to clean a few pots and make up some potting soil for the plants you’ll have to pot this winter. A good mixture to keep around in a big plastic bag consists of 4 quarts of vermiculite, 4 quarts of shredded peat, about 2 tablespoons of limestone, 4 tablespoons of dried cow manure or bone meal, and a tablespoon of superphosphate ... good for general planting all winter, and it’s a light mixture.

Are you ready for winter? I know I’m not, but at least I can be ready to garden on my windowsill.

Q: What should I use to prevent weeds from growing in my strawberry garden?

A: Are these new strawberry beds or older establish beds?

You can weed again and again, but it’s not easy on your back.

Use a chemical weed killer — read the label carefully!

Use a weed cloth and drape it around each plant. If this a new bed, lay the weed cloth on the area before planting, then cut slits in the cloth and place the plant through the cloth — it’s easier than draping around existing mature plants.

Use 2 or 3 inches of seedless straw as a mulch — don’t use hay as it carries an awful lot of weed seeds!

Weeding by hand — it’s not easy but it’s cheap, and it works!

Strawberries are a lot of work, but worth every delicious bite!

Q: I really would like to grow a tomato plant in a pot indoors this winter. It was a last-minute thought — I guess I could get seed — but where can I get a tomato plant this late in the year?

A: You probably can’t get a plant, but if there hasn’t been a hard killing frost, you can take a cutting of one you grew this summer (or beg for one from your neighbor). Tomatoes will root easily.

As a last resort, try calling around to local nurseries — sometimes nurseries with greenhouses have a leftover potted patio tomato plant for sale.

Unless you have grow lights or an extremely sunny window with southern exposure, don’t expect much fruit. If you get a flower, be prepared to hand pollinate it with a tiny paintbrush — there are no natural pollinators indoors. Watch out for all of the normal indoor plant pests, especially white fly, spider mite and mealy bugs. Does all this work sound discouraging just for a beautiful, ripe, juicy tomato or two? You’re right on! If you want to be able to harvest a touch of something fresh and green from your sunny windowsill this winter, you’d be better off growing some herbs!

This week’s dirt: Final cleanup days are coming, but before you venture out into the wild, learn what poison ivy looks like in the fall. It still has three leaves, but they’re turning red now and soon will turn brown; they’ll still cause a bad rash! Wear gloves, long pants and a long-sleeve shirt while in the fields, and don’t burn the garden trash! The oils can cause as much trouble as fresh poison ivy.


North Shore Gardener by Barbara Barger of Beverly is a feature of Friday’s Lifestyles section. Reach Barbara by email at or write to her c/o The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA 01915. Previous North Shore Gardener columns can be found at