If you are reading this post now, in late January, the answer is ‘not yet’, for tulips at least. Originally published in November 2016, ‘When is too late to plant spring bulbs?’ has become one of my most read posts of the last eight years. For the next few weeks I am pinning it to the top of my blog in the hopes it will encourage a few more readers to rescue forgotten brown bags filled with bulbs, and to give them the gift of life. Displays like one below are still possible if you make haste.
The Watch House, November 17th 2016
I am late with everything this year: late going on holiday, late preparing for Christmas and late planting my spring bulbs. As someone who prefers to be perennially prepared and eternally early, this is an unsettling state of affairs. But, am I too late to be nurturing my narcissi or interring my tulips? Certainly not.
As with most things in life and gardening, the thought of being late is very much worse than the reality. As a general rule, bulbs that flower in the early part of the year should be safely secreted in the ground at least six weeks before there’s any risk of the soil becoming frozen (an increasingly unusual occurence in the South of England). However most display an amazing degree of tolerance when it comes to being planted late, even if this is delayed until the New Year. As long as the ground can be dug and is not waterlogged, there is a good chance your bulbs will put on a respectable show.
Narcissi are noted for preferring to be planted in late summer or early autumn. To be certain of top quality blooms, this is sound advice. Daffodil bulbs like time to establish themselves whilst the soil is still warm. They tend to produce roots even if kept in their packets and are then prone to dehydrating. Check to make sure bulbs are plump and firm before going to the trouble of planting, otherwise you could be wasting your time. Don’t worry if they have started to sprout, but take care to ensure the growing tips are not damaged when you handle them. Planted later in the year daffodil bulbs will almost certainly bloom later, and some may come up ‘blind’, flowering the following season. Small, weakened bulbs will clump-up more slowly, although they should eventually recover.
On the flip side, warm, damp conditions can encourage fungus and disease problems in early-planted bulbs. This is especially troublesome for tulips. Whether in the ground or in pots, tulips should be planted after the weather turns cold. This will slow down or stop the development of nasty afflictions such as Tulip Fire, which causes unsightly brown spots on tulip foliage and flowers. I never plant tulip bulbs before November, unless they are in pots combined with narcissi. Planting in clean, sterilised compost reduces the likelihood of disease arising, and is fairly low risk. With cold weather frequently not arriving in the UK until December, the planting window for tulips is long and holding off should not delay flowering. On a recent edition of Gardeners’ Question Time, Bunny Guinness suggested that planting tulips as late as January or February, whilst not ‘text book’, can still result in a reasonable display. I have waited until as late as early March and still enjoyed flowers a couple of months later: bulbs have a clever habit of catching up with one another as soon as spring arrives.
Those gardeners brave enough to leave it late to buy their bulbs are often rewarded with some great deals. In November most merchants are keen to sell off excess stock at discounted prices, even though it’s perfectly viable. In fact the bulbs will be probably be in better shape than any purchased early and then stored at home. If you’re not precious about buying specific varieties then you’d do well to hold your nerve until the merchants lose theirs.
If, like me, you have purchased bulbs and simply haven’t had time to plant them, I’d offer three pieces of advice – keep them cool, dry and dark. Warmth and moisture, whilst essential for initiating growth, are the enemies of dormant bulbs. Store them carefully in paper bags or well ventilated cardboard boxes, but never in sealed containers or plastic bags where they will sweat. Place the packages somewhere with good ventilation, preferably not in a closed cupboard. I go as far as to place my bulbs in a tray, arranged in a single layer, near a dehumidifier. This guarantees they don’t get damp. I check the bulbs every week and remove any that are showing signs of going soft or mouldy. These will soon contaminate the whole lot, and can smell pretty rancid in the process: the fragrance of festering fritillarias is something one should only encounter once in a lifetime! Exposure to bright light will also stimulate growth, even in the absence of food and water (bulbs are preloaded with both), so find a hiding place that’s nice and dark.
Even if you find a packet of tulips, daffodils or hyacinths hiding at the back of the garden shed after the Christmas sherry and New Year fizz has worn off, it’s still worth taking a chance. Bulbs are survivors by design, packed with energy to sustain them through good times and bad. If they bloom and grow it will be a pleasant surprise, and if they don’t, you can always start again, a bit earlier, next year.