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Is It Too Late to Plant Spring Bulbs?

Rebecca is a retired special education teacher, a freelance writer, and an avid recycler.

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When to Plant Spring Bulbs

The holidays are over and the dead of winter, not the most colorful time of year, has settled in for most of us. The knockout roses are long gone.

The Christmas cactus and poinsettia have passed their peak and are headed to a resting spot, where they hope to be nursed along by a patient gardener for blooming again next year—or at best are ready for the compost pile rather than the trash. But we know spring will come once again, and those bulbs we planted in the fall will bloom with radiant color.

But wait! Did we even get around to planting them? What? Halloween came suddenly, and then it was practically Thanksgiving. Oh no! We forgot to plant those tulip and crocus bulbs we bought to go along the front walkway.

Well, not to worry. Reliable sources have told us it is OK to go ahead and plant those bulbs. In fact, they say we MUST plant them, or they will be no good next year. This article will provide tips to get the most out of those bulbs we forgot to plant.

Narcissus

Narcissus

Early Spring Flowering Bulbs

Daffodil (narcissus), tulip, crocus, and hyacinth are the most common and favorite early spring bloomers that grow from bulbs that must chill in the soil for establishing root systems. Unlike seeds, bulbs are storehouses of nutrients that must be planted within the year. They do not keep as seeds do and will shrivel up and rot if not planted.

Therefore, we first must check the condition of the bulbs. If our bulbs are still firm and onion-like, they should be fine. Bulbs that have been ordered will usually be in better condition than those that have sat in a retail store. Bulbs must have been stored in cool, dry places. But if our bulbs have withered, there is still time. If we really have our hearts set on a touch of early spring beauty, bulbs can still be ordered for planting.

Best Time to Plant Spring Bulbs

If we were not forgetful procrastinators, we would have ideally planted our early spring flower bulbs back when the temperature was a consistent 50°F at night in the growing zone we live in. This practice would have given plenty of time for a good root system to be established and ensure the largest, healthiest blooms.

For us in growing zones 4–7, late December to early February will not be a total washout. Our 10 o'clock scholar daffodils will be late and maybe not the brightest flower in the garden, but no one ever saw an ugly flower. So better late than never.

What to Do With Bulbs When the Ground Is Frozen

What about our friends in the far north that are dealing with the frozen ground? Advice from the experts remains the same. Better to find a way to get them in the soil than not to plant at all. Ideally, snowbirds in zones 1–4 would have planted spring-blooming bulbs from late August to early September. If the ground has not frozen and a shovel will dig in, they need to go ahead and plant the bulbs.

They will need to plant a bit deeper than recommended. The bulbs need enough time in the cold soil to establish root systems. An early spring thaw could cause roots to shoot out too soon. After the ground is totally frozen, mulch the top of the soil with leaves or straw for insulation.

What if the ground is so frozen the soil can’t be turned?

Again, better to find a way to get them into the soil than not to plant at all. There are two options:

  • Pot them up. Plant bulbs in large containers with potting soil. Make sure the bulbs are not right up against the sides of the pot, where they could freeze. There should be plenty of soil between the pot sides and the bulbs for insulation. Store the pot in an unheated garage or basement. You want them to get cold, but not expose them to extremes. Only water when the soil is dry, about once a month or so. Plant them outdoors in the spring when all danger of frost has passed.
  • Plant bulbs on top of the frozen soil. Lay bulbs on the frozen ground. Cover with 8–10 inches of soil and enclose the area with a fence of chicken wire or something similar. With luck, we will have showy heads peeking out when spring comes.
Crocus

Crocus

Spring Bulbs in More Temperate Climates

Our friends in temperate climates have a different set of issues to deal with for spring bulb planting. Folks in growing zones about 4–7 never know from one week to the next what the fall temperatures are going to be. Indian summers can be quite warm and may cause premature sprouting. Later may even be better for planting bulbs in temperate zones.

Lovers of early spring flowers that reside in zones 8 and above must use pre-chilled bulbs but will not need to plant them in the ground until early spring. These folks won’t be as desperate as those further north for a breath of spring, so they will be OK. They have not had a frozen and flowerless winter as the rest of us have.

Force Blooming Bulbs

Amaryllis and paperwhite Narcissus are tropical bulb flowers that do not require a chilling period. These are great for planting indoors after Christmas for a hint of spring in mid-winter. The bulbs can be planted in soil or even placed in wet pebbles. Keep them in cool-ish temperatures, maybe close to a window and away from heat sources until they bloom, usually in two to four weeks. Amaryllis comes in red and peachy pink colors as well as white to provide a burst of winter color.

Paperwhite narcissus

Paperwhite narcissus

Tulip Bulbs

Tulips have been popular recently for force blooming but are a bit more trouble, as they do need a good, long chilling period. Plant the tulip bulbs in terra cotta pots for good drainage. Keep the potted bulbs in a very cool location between 40–50°F. Refrigerator temperatures are perfect but maybe not a practical storage place. Fruits emit gasses that are harmful to the bulbs. Best to find a chilly basement or attic.

Keep the tulip bulbs for at least 12 weeks in a totally dark area in temperatures between 40–50°F. Do not let the soil dry out completely. Move them to a warmer area when yellowish shoots appear.

Tulips

Tulips

Time to Wake Up!

Who doesn’t just hate to be awakened from a deep sleep suddenly? If we introduce blooming plants to sunlight and warmer temperatures gradually, they will reward our kindness with beautiful blooms all spring. Expect to see blooms three to four weeks after removing from cold storage. Introduce light and warmth gradually. When shoots are around five inches, place them in a sunny window with a temperature of 68°F.

Bulbs planted outdoors will likely be awakened in Mother Nature’s slow manner. Of course, the later the bulbs were planted, the later the blooms. But if we succeed in getting even just a few flowers, all has not been lost. Better than tossing shriveled bulbs in the trash. Mother Nature will bless us for our efforts.

Tips for Spring Bulb Planting

  • Plant crocus 4 inches deep.
  • Plant daffodils and hyacinths 6 inches deep.
  • Plant tulips 8 inches deep.
  • The pointed end of the bulb goes up.
  • If planted incorrectly, the stem will eventually grow upwards.
  • Bulbs do not need fertilizing for the first year.
  • Wear gloves when planting bulbs to keep human smell off of bulbs to deter animals.
  • Red pepper sprinkled in the hole will repel rodents.
  • Animals will not eat daffodil bulbs.
  • Deer love tulip bulbs, so plant them close to the house.
  • Plant bulbs in clusters, not singly.
  • Plant bulbs among perennials for added beauty.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Rebecca Mealey (author) from Northeastern Georgia, USA on February 02, 2021:

I would have loved to see that! Thanks, Flourish!

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 02, 2021:

These are good tips. I love the look of a yard full of flowers, but I sure didn't think ahead last fall. Years ago I planted so many spring bulbs that neighbors stopped and gawked at our yard. It was almost like Holland. The animals do get some bulbs so I appreciated those tips in particular.

Rebecca Mealey (author) from Northeastern Georgia, USA on February 01, 2021:

Thanks for your input! It's been a really mild winter here. I'm so mad. I want snow!

Rebecca Mealey (author) from Northeastern Georgia, USA on February 01, 2021:

Me too!

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on February 01, 2021:

Great article.

Planting bulbs on top of the frozen ground soil will definitely need a fence as you say...we have critters that love to walk away with them, even in the fresh planted dirt.

Thanks for sharing.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on February 01, 2021:

Your article was very helpful. I never know for sure when to plant? Oh, I'll be so happy when spring arrived and all the bulbs sprout.

Rebecca Mealey (author) from Northeastern Georgia, USA on February 01, 2021:

Thank YOU Chitrangada.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 31, 2021:

Nice and complete guide for planting the spring bulbs. I learnt so much from your well written and informative article.

Thank you for sharing.

Rebecca Mealey (author) from Northeastern Georgia, USA on January 31, 2021:

I saw a few daffodils just the other day! Thanks, Peggy.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 31, 2021:

When we were living up north, the spring bulb plants were a joy to see in bloom. Often they rose above the last remnants of snow on the ground. In Houston, Texas, tulips and other similar bulbs are considered annuals. One time I did keep tulip bulbs refrigerated for several months and then planted them. Now, we enjoy seasonal bouquets of them. Your article is a good primer for those wishing to plant the different types of bulbs.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 31, 2021:

This article has a wealth of great information, Rebecca. I grew up in Ohio on the shore of Lake Erie, and while I didn't like the weather, the spring flowers were always a joy. I miss many of them as few are suitable for northern FL.

I think your information is spot on. Thnk you for sharing.

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