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Tulip bulbs are typically planted in the fall, but what happens when you forget to plant them and it’s already January? You plant them anyway—in the ground or in pots! Here are my tips on how to plant bulbs in winter or late in the season.
What Do You Do With Forgotten Tulips?
A few Januaries ago, I came across a bag of tulip bulbs that had gotten misplaced in my gardening shed. Evidently, the dozen tulips hid when I had planted over 150 other bulbs in the previous October. I was looking forward to seeing this variety’s colors lining my garden path. At least, that was the plan.
Researchers found that you can grow gorgeous tulips in only mulch, 2 inches being the optimum depth. They experimented with mulch layers up to six inches deep and determined the two-inch covering (renewed every autumn) produced the largest amount of flowers and the most vigorous plants.
If you are looking at unplanted bulbs in December or January or even February—get them in the ground. Don’t wait for spring or next fall. Bulbs aren’t like seeds. They won’t survive out of the ground indefinitely.
How to Plant Tulips in Winter
According to the Cornell study (done over a six-year period), you should plant tulips during winter in this way:
Clear away snow and loosen soil, if possible. If not, choose an area with soil full of organic matter.
Scratch in bulb fertilizer. If the ground is totally frozen, scatter fertilizer sparingly and over a larger range than normal.
Place bulbs on top of soil. Do not press them in, as this will damage the bulb base, where roots form.
Cover with 2-4 inches of aged mulch or finished compost. Go for the thicker layer if planting during the height of winter, like I did.
Renew mulch covering often to be sure there is at least a two-inch layer.
Before you plant those forgotten bulbs, make sure they’re still good. Gently squeeze them and if they are firm (not dry or spongy), they are probably fine. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Planting in Pots
If the ground is too frozen for digging, another option is to plant the bulbs in pots!
If you try this, keep the pots in a cool unheated area with temperatures between 38°F and 50°F (3°C and 10°C)—an attached garage or a home refrigerator often does the job. Water them and keep the soil moist but never soggy. After 8 or more weeks, bring a few pots indoors. Or, once spring begins to warm things up, move the pots outdoors to bloom.
What If Bulbs Come Up Early in Winter?
It’s not uncommon to have a mild winter and find your tulips or daffodils or other spring bulbs are sprouting. Don’t worry about this. Let nature take its course. Spring bulbs shrub off cold weather and even snow. These bulbs are built to survive the cold and even snow. Small bulbs such as snowdrops and crocus actually bloom through the snow. It’s possible that a hard frost will affect the buds or leaf tips, but the bulbs should still flower.
Bottom-line: Take your chances. No matter what, the bulbs are better off giving it a fighting chance in the ground or a chilled pot than wasting away in the garage or cupboard. Flower bulbs are survivors by nature’s design. Every year stories abound of bulbs that bloom after being planted under the most improbable circumstances.
Doreen Howard, an award-winning author, is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day. She has gardened in every climate zone from California to Texas to Oklahoma to the Midwest. She’s especially fond of unusual houseplants and heirloom edibles. Read More from Doreen G. Howard