When you’ve pulled up your garden and start thinking about spring garden planning, what’s some of the things that come to mind? At The Grow Monster, we begin thinking about our front patch of flower bulbs. This garden space includes Tulips, Daffodils, and Bearded Irises. I often see these plants still for sale throughout winter, but when is too late to plant tulips?
Although the fall is the most optimal time to plant tulips, you can still plant them in the winter and spring following these 3 expert tips:
- Wait until summer temperatures have dropped and the ground is cool.
- Make sure the bulbs are dry- not mushy or moldy.
- Bury the bulbs at the right height for their size.
If you follow these 3 expert tips, you won’t have to worry about being too late to plant tulips. Read on for a more in depth answer!
When Should You Plant Tulips?
You should plant tulips in the fall, right as the summer temperatures have cooled. What month will be dependent on which USDA plant hardiness zone you are located in. If you don’t already know, click here to check the USDA site using your zip code. You should be planting to allow 12-14 weeks of low temperature in your local climate. For some locations that may be September and some that may be as late as early November. But, even later may not be too late to plant tulips.
Studies show that shorter periods of 2-6 weeks of low temperature result in many bulbs not flowering, showing stunted growth, or even discoloration. You can still avoid these problems if you keep in mind the amount of low temperature weeks and plant your bulbs at other times of the year.
Bulbs were stored in 48.2 F (9 C) for a period of 6 weeks during an experiment of effects of cold treatment on tulip bulbs. They were then exposed to cold outside temperatures for a period of 0-17 weeks to compare flowering. The best results occurred between 6-8 weeks of cold outside temperatures. Ideally, you you will need at least 12 weeks total of low temperatures for more uniform flowering and stem elongation. If you are able to refrigerate the bulbs, it still may not be too late to plant tulips even if the temperature outside is no longer cool enough.
Before planting your tulip bulbs, ensure they are dry- not mushy or moldy. Check that they are firm to the touch and not crumbling. Squeeze the bulb, if it is obviously mushy then the bulb is no longer viable. Ensuring you are planting healthy bulbs goes a long way to making sure you will have flowers in the spring!
Bury the bulbs at the right height for their size. You want to avoid planting too shallow or too deep based on the size of the bulb. If your bulbs are larger, you can plant deeper vs planting smaller bulbs more shallow. A good rule of thumb is to plant your bulbs 3 times the height of the bulb. For example, if your bulb is 3 inches tall, then you would plant it 9 inches deep. Planting depth is important because if the bulb is too deep then the flowers won’t be able to form whereas if the bulb is not deep enough the plant will keep falling over after it flowers.
What Happens if You Plant Tulips Too Early?
If you plant tulips too early, during summer or before the temperatures drop and the ground is still warm, you may stunt your tulip growth or even prevent them from growing at all. Studies show the tulip bulbs need the lower temperatures to store sugar to use for stalk, leaf, and flower production. If you plant the bulbs too early then the plant will start sending up leaves and use its sugar stores before it is ready to flower.
When the plant sends up leaves or stalks too early, that also leaves it susceptible to losing leaves during the first winter frost- and may cause the bulb to die. Alternatively, this may cause the bulb to grow much larger but it will then only produce flowers on the second year. Some people do prefer this method and it is called “stoking blind” of tulip bulbs. Scientists compared this method with digging up and storing the bulbs at 68 F (28 C) and found that the plants still grew much larger bulbs and fewer side shoots when storing the bulbs.
If you have the option to store the bulbs in a cool, dry place this would be much better than planting them too early. Otherwise, you may lose the flowers for the first year. You may also wish to plant the bulbs in pots to store in the garage or basement (any cool, dry place) until the ground temperature is low enough to plant them outside.
Can You Plant Tulips in Winter?
Tulips can be planted in winter as long as you can work the ground. Tulips are cold hardy in zones 3-8 and can be planted once the ground has cooled. Because of the temperature differences in and between these zones, you want to check your local climate to tell when it is cold enough to plant your tulip bulbs. Generally, it is recommended to plant earlier in the fall for zones 1-3 and later in the fall for zones 8 and above. You may even need to dig up your tulips and put them in the refrigerator at 40-45 F (4.4-7.2 C) for at least 10 weeks if your outside temperatures are too high during the winter.
Many people think winter is too late to plant tulips, but as long as you have enough weeks of cold temperatures you can still plant them outside. The cold temperatures are required for the bulbs to produce enough sugar to use to grow the stems, leaves, and finally flower in the spring. If you are in zones with a more moderate but cold winter, like The Grow Monster in zone 7, then you can even plant tulip bulbs throughout January and February.
One of the challenges to plant tulip bulbs in winter is digging down deep enough to make sure the bulbs can be planted at the right depth for their height. If the ground is frozen, it can be unworkable. A tip to be able to dig a bit deeper is to make sure you dig when the ground is dry and hasn’t rained. When The Grow Monster lived in zone 5, it was often too hard to dig the ground during the winter with a regular shovel. If you are planting your tulips while preparing your winter garden, check out this article on 10 easy ways to prepare a garden in winter.
You may need a pick axe or pointed shovel to be able to get through the top layer of frozen soil. If you are trying to plant next to other bulbs, it may be too late to plant tulips because you don’t want to end up breaking the other bulbs already in the ground. If you already have other bulbs in one area, you can always plant the new bulbs in containers or keep in the refrigerator until your ground is workable during a warmer winter day.
Can You Plant Tulips in Spring?
You can plant tulips in spring if you are in a colder zone although they may end up blooming later. If your early spring temperatures are still lower than 40 F (4.4 C) for at least 10 weeks, then you will not be too late to plant tulips. If you might not have cooler temperatures for that long, you can still plant your bulbs but you risk them not flowering the first year. Some people prefer to do this in order to force the bulbs to become much larger for the second year. Ideally, you want to plant in the fall but sometimes spring planting can still work.
If you have already bought the bulbs and they are sitting in your garden area waiting to be planted, go ahead and plant them! As long as they are not mushy or damaged, plant them at a depth three times the height of the bulb. If you didn’t get them in the ground, as the bulbs are stored, at some point they begin to start using their sugar reserves and will eventually not be viable. Take the chance planting them, and as long as you follow The Grow Monster 3 expert tips you might still get flowers either later in the season or next year.
Can You Plant Tulips in Summer?
Summer is not an ideal time to plant tulips. The ground is too warm for the bulbs to begin producing sugar for the next spring’s flowers. If it is already summer and you haven’t planted your bulbs, it is too late to plant tulips. If the bulbs are still dry and not mushy, you can try putting them in the refrigerator until the ground is cool enough to plant. Alternatively, you can plant them in containers keeping in mind they may not flower at all.
If your local stores are starting to get tulip bulbs in stock again in the summer, you may want to wait to purchase them until later in the season when they get a new shipment. If your store will only receive one shipment, you can purchase some and place them in cold storage of around 40 F (4.4 C) and place them in a pot indoors to force them to flower inside. This may not be ideal, but it can help your bulbs live through the summer until you can plant them when they are supposed to be planted. You get the double benefit of having beautiful indoor flowers and beautiful flowers again next spring.
It can be too late to plant tulips if the ground outside is not cool enough to help the bulbs store sugar. As long as the tulip bulbs have at least 10 weeks of cooler temperatures, they will be able to flower this spring. Keep in mind The Grow Monster 3 expert tips: wait until summer temperatures have dropped and the ground is cool, make sure the bulbs are dry- not mushy or moldy, and plant the tulip bulbs at a depth about 3 times their height and it will not be too late to plant tulips.
Tulips are a beautiful addition to any garden and a great reminder that it will soon be time to start planting all the other things in your garden!
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