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Growing saffron: troubleshooting problems

27-Nov-2013 | Contributed by: Niki Morrell

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Photo Credit: Ewan Morrell

Saffron, Crocus sativus, is an undemanding crop. It’s frost-hardy, drought-tolerant and can handle a reasonable amount of neglect. So why is your saffron struggling?  

Here are the seven most common reasons:

1. Poor drainage

A free-draining soil is absolutely essential for growing saffron. Corms will rot when they’re water-logged. If you have a heavy soil and/or high rainfall, grow your saffron in raised beds and ensure there’s plenty of organic matter in the growing mix.

2. Insufficient light

Saffron needs full sun for both flowering and producing plentiful foliage to feed its ‘daughter’ corms. The plant will survive in lower light but won’t produce well. Site your saffron beds or containers in full sun, away from hedges and trees. If this isn’t possible, a light-reflective mulch between the rows will help a little.

3. The wrong fertiliser

Animal manure was the traditional fertiliser for saffron beds. A well-made compost will do the trick, although some growers add phosphorus and potassium to increase flower production and overall vigour. Don’t use fertiliser that’s high in nitrogen, as this will produce lush foliage at the expense of flowers. Top up the beds with compost in early summer and use an occasional foliar feed when the plant’s actively growing. 

4. Corms planted at wrong depth

Saffron corms should be planted 10cm deep; any deeper and the plant will use up its food reserves before it reaches the soil surface. 

5. Weather issues

Saffron likes a Mediterranean climate: cold winters and warm, dry summers with rain in spring and autumn. A cool, wet summer is more of an issue than a mild winter – soil and air temperatures are lower, light levels are reduced and this places the corms at risk of rotting or succumbing to pests and diseases. Black plastic weedmat between the rows can help increase temperature slightly and raised beds with good drainage will reduce the risk of rot. Note that growing saffron under cover isn’t really a viable option because of its high light requirement.

6. Pests, diseases and weed competition

Sheep and rabbits love saffron foliage, so your beds should be fenced to keep them out. Birds and rats can sometimes be a problem, picking the corms out of the soil. Saffron corms can also be attacked by nematodes and diseases like corm rot and leaf rust. Growing in raised beds can help reduce the risk of these and will also reduce weed competition. If your saffron beds are sited on areas containing perennial, spreading weeds like yarrow and sheep sorrel, either dig these out first or place a layer of well-soaked cardboard on the ground before adding the growing medium. 

7. Overcrowding

A saffron corm can produce between one and ten ‘daughters’. The daughter corms sit higher in the soil than their mothers, which means that over a period of years they eventually make their way to the surface. For this reason, all corms should be lifted and re-planted every three years.

There’s one other reason why your saffron might suffer: too much love! Don’t overly-cosset your plants. They’ve evolved to be tough, hardy little suckers and their needs are simple. Meet these, then leave them alone to get on with it. You’ll be surprised at how well they cope!

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