When to Cut Back Daffodils, Tulips and Alliums
Practical advice on when to trim off unsightly bulb foliage
By Daniel Woodley at DIY Gardening
Daffodils are one of the most popular early bloomers, and quite rightfully so, we had huge swathes of daffodils in the front of our sunny border this spring and two pots crammed with them by our front door. Daffodils made quite a statement in our garden this year, and we received plenty of compliments from the neighbours as well.
Unfortunately, when the flowers fade, the foliage and stalks look damn ugly, and most gardeners are keen to trim it off or hide it from view.
But when is it safe to cut back the daffodil foliage and stalk?
What happens if you cut it back too early or tie it up?
How can a gardener improve the chances of the bulbs flowering again next year?
My name is Daniel Woodley, and I welcome you to DIY Gardening’s guide to cutting back daffodils, tulips and alliums – published 5th of June 2021.
Why You Shouldn’t Cut Back Daffodils and Other Bulbs Too Early
Bulb plants will only produce flowers if they have enough energy in the form of carbohydrates stored in the bulb, and to achieve this, they rely on photosynthesis.
Photosynthesis is the process of converting sunlight, CO2, and water into energy, and the plant leaves are crucial for this.
If you cut back the foliage too early after a daffodil, allium, or tulip has flowered, the bulb won’t have enough stored energy to flower next year. It may produce leaves but no flower, or it may produce a fragile and small flower.
Put simply, you need to leave the foliage in place for long enough so the bulb can create enough stored energy.
Keep Watering and Feeding the Bulb
To increase the chances of the bulb producing a strong and healthy flower next year, you should continue watering and feeding the plant as you normally would, right up until the leaves have fallen off naturally or you’ve cut them off.
This is particularly important if your bulbs are in containers as these are more likely to dry out.
When to Deadhead Flowers on Daffodils, Tulips and Alliums
Here’s the best time to remove the faded flowers on daffodils, tulips and alliums:
Daffodils – As soon as the flower has faded, you can cut off the head just below the flower or at the base of the stalk. This deadheading stops the daffodils from growing seeds which wastes energy.
Tulips – As above, just cut the flower head off when it’s faded or take the whole stalk off at ground level.
Alliums – The flowers on alliums make a lovely decorative feature, and many gardeners chose to leave the dried, faded flowers in place throughout the summer. Personally, I believe this creates an autumnal feel in the garden, so I chop the heads off just after they’ve faded. You can leave them in place for a few weeks, then cut the entire stalk off at ground level and place the dried flower in a vase indoors if you wish.
When to Cut Back Daffodils, Tulip and Alliums
Ideally, you woudn’t cut back the daffodils, tulips or alliums at all; you would just leave the foliage to die back naturally.
Unfortunately, for aesthetic reasons, you may need to cut them back as yellow and brown foliage might ruin the appearance of the garden
As a general rule of thumb you should wait until the foliage has turned yellow and has started to shrivel before you cut back daffodils, tulips or alliums.
Shrivelled yellow leaves and stalks are a sign that the bulb has finished storing energy from photosynthesis and is about to go into dormancy.
This usually occurs about 6 – 8 weeks after the plant has finished flowering. How long it takes exactly will depend on the bulb, the ground conditions and the weather.
If you cut back the foliage before then, the bulb may not flower next year.
How to Cut Back the Leaves and Foliage
It’s easy to tell when it’s safe to cut back yellow plant foliage, just wait at least six weeks after the last flowers have faded and then give the foliage a gentle pull and if it gives way easily, you can go ahead and cut back the leaves to ground level.
I use secateurs to trim off the yellow foliage and stalk just above ground level.
Can I Tie the Foliage in a Knot To Make it Look Neater?
You may have seen gardeners tie the foliage up into bunches with string; some twist the stalk and use that to bunch the foliage into a knot.
Unfortunately, both methods reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the plant’s surface, and photosynthesis is reduced.
I don’t recommend tying the foliage of daffodils, tulips or alliums, it will make your garden look neater, but there are better ways to achieve this.
How to Hide the Ugly Foliage Naturally
Very few gardeners want to see swatches of yellowing leaves in their borders and pots, certainly not in the springtime anyway.
The best way to mask them is to choose companion plants carefully.
Alliums produce tall stalks with large flower heads, but the foliage is notoriously unattractive. By planting alliums amongst ornamental grasses, you can hide the foliage while leaving the flower as the centre of attention.
I’ve hidden tulip foliage behind coneflowers and Cranesbills (Hardy Geraniums) before, and it worked just fine; about 3 weeks after the tulips lost their flowers, the Coneflowers and Geraniums had enough size to mask them.
French Lavender is an early bloomer (ours were blooming by early May in 2021), and I’ve placed tulips behind them with success before.
Daffodils are more difficult to hide as they bloom early, usually before most other plants get going. Hostas and other big leaf perennials would do a good job of hiding their fading foliage.
My advice is to plant tulip, daffodils and alliums a little further back in the border and place fast-growing plants in the front. Hardy Geraniums can grow from the size of a fist to the size of a bucket in about a week, so they’re a great choice.
Should The Bulbs Be Lifted?
“Lifting” is the process of removing the bulbs from the ground after the foliage has died, cleaning them and storing them until their ideal planting time later in the year.
Not every bulb needs to be lifted, and as a general rule of thumb, those buried underneath other plants can be left in place.
There are, however, benefits to lifting bulbs, so here’s our guide for daffodils, tulips and alliums:
Daffodils – You don’t need to lift daffodils each year, and some will perform very well for several years if left in the same spot. However, after a few years in the same location, most daffodils will grow smaller and shorter until one year; they may not flower at all. Most gardeners lift their daffodils every few years, give them a clean, store them until late autumn and then plant them back into the soil. If you want to put them back into the same spot, we suggest turning the soil with a shovel and adding some fresh compost or bulb fibre.
Tulips – It’s not unusual for tulips to flower for one year only; most of the unusual cultivars behave this way, while some of the traditional bulbs may come back the next year, although there is no guarantee of this. If you want your tulips to come back next year, you’ll need to lift them once the foliage has died back, clean them and trim the old roots off, then store them in a cool, dry spot until planting time in the autumn. As there is no guarantee of them coming back in the second year, relocate them to a less important area of the garden and buy fresh bulbs for your primary borders and containers.
Alliums – These bulbs can be quite large and will multiply, so they should be lifted and separated every 3-4 years. You can put them back into the same spot, just turn the soil over first and add some compost of bulb fibre. We love alliums and have been growing them for a few years, explore our guide to growing alliums here.
A Quick Recap
Here’s a quick recap of the main points:
- Foliage should be left to die back naturally if possible so the bulb can store energy for next year.
- Wait at least 6 weeks before cutting back foliage which should be yellow and dead.
- Keep watering and feeding the bulb until the foliage is dead.
- Don’t tie the leaves into knots.
- Some bulbs can be left in the same location for a few years; others should be lifted more frequently.
- Choose companion plants wisely, so they grow at just the right time to mask the unattractive yellow foliage.
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More From Daniel Woodley:
This guide to cutting back daffodils and other bulbs was created by Daniel Woodley here at DIY Gardening and was last updated on the 5th of June, 2021.
Discover more helpful hints and tips from Daniel over at the blog.
Daniel is a keen amateur gardener who also manages a large residential landscape in addition to his own mid-size garden.
He also enjoys growing vegetables and fruits as well as his herbaceous border and container garden.