If you lift and divide overcrowded clumps of spring bulbs now you’ll have more bulbs to plant – free! – and a better display next spring.

Daffodils outside Melton Hall on University of Nottingham's Jubilee Campus. Lift and divide

Daffodils outside Melton Hall on University of Nottingham's Jubilee Campus. © mattbuck and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/

If you lift and divide bulbs it improves flowering

Spring bulbs like daffodils, narcissi, grape hyacinths and crocuses put on a good show if they’re planted deeply enough. Then, suddenly, there are fewer flowers or they are smaller. The show isn’t as good. What could be going wrong? It might be because the clumps of bulbs have become overcrowded.

(It could also be because the bulbs haven't been fed after flowering, either by the sun through their leaves or by fertiliser. Make sure you allow the leaves to die down naturally, and don't knot or tie them. They might look a bit messy for a while but this will ensure the bulbs are healthy for next year.)

OK, so your spring bulbs are overcrowded. Read on to find out how to lift and divide them.

Crocuses in Shroggs Park on Lee Mount, Halifax. Lift and divide

Crocuses in Shroggs Park on Lee Mount, Halifax, looking north-northwest towards the drinking fountain. © Paul Glazzard and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

When is the best time to lift and divide bulbs?

Generally, it's in May. Do it when the leaves are dying down but you can still see them. This shows you where to work.

You will need …

A fork rather than a spade. Using a fork means you’re less likely to cut into any of the bulbs. Cutting into bulbs is not a good idea as it encourages rot and mildew.

Be prepared to find big bulbs and small bulbs

Bulbs like to spread so you'll probably find small bulbs close to or attached to the parent bulbs. These are called offsets and they'll grow into mature flowering bulbs in a couple of years. New bulbs, more flowers – free! Grape hyacinths, for example, form offsets very easily. Larger bulbs like daffodils may only have one or two.

Grape hyacinths at All Saints' Church, Odell, Bedfordshire. Lift and divide

Grape hyacinths at All Saints' Church, Odell, Bedfordshire. © Cameraman and reused under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

How to lift

  • Gently, start to loosen the soil a few inches away from the clump of bulbs with a fork.
  • Then get the fork right under the clump and lift it, soil and all. Don’t pull on the leaves.
  • Shake and brush off the earth and work the bulbs out with your hands.

How to divide

  • Carefully pull apart any bulbs that separate easily. Daffodil bulbs sometimes split into two and can be divided with care. Their offsets will come away easily when they have grown into a round shape.
  • Leave any little offsets attached to the parent bulb and allow them to mature and separate naturally.
  • Check the bulbs to see if they look firm and healthy. Throw them away if they're shrivelled or show any sign of damage or disease.

Replant

For best results, replant the bulbs as soon as possible. A good rule of thumb is to plant a bulb at a depth about three times its size. If the leaves are dead, cut them back before replanting. Let the leaves be if they're healthy as they’ve still got a job to do in feeding the bulb up for next year’s show of flowers.

You have two options with offsets.

Option 1 is to plant them in the ground with enough space to grow into. Planting them out now will save you time in a year or so when they start to flower. The larger the offsets, the sooner they'll flower.

Option 2 is to plant and grow the offsets on in a nursery or holding bed. If you don’t have room for this, put them in a nursery pot – I have several of these in a quiet corner of the garden. In a couple of years, when the bulbs are a bit more mature, move them to a permanent place.

Finally, feel accomplished and look forward to a glorious display next spring!