When Is Too Late to Plant Spring Bulbs?

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.

Outdoor plantind, daffodils, spring bulbs, The Eden Project, March 2016

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.

Tulips, The Eden Project, March 2016

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.

Tulip Bulbs, October 2013

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.

Narcissus actaea, St James' Park, London, March 2014

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28 thoughts on “When Is Too Late to Plant Spring Bulbs?

  1. Perfect timing! Thank you so much for the advice. I was just beginning to fret that as I haven’t yet managed to plant all the bulbs I’d bought, the garden at my ‘new’ house would continue to be devoid of spring colour. What a relief! I will get planting this weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I planted snowdrops this year. Quite excited to see the display next spring – I’m hoping for a pleasing contrast to the blue glory-of-the-snow.

    Last year, my daffs got smothered by strawberries, a situation which will have to be remedied next spring.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I planted daffodils last year when they were in the green. (Their homesite was being demolished). They have not produced leaves yet, while my neighbors’ daffodils are almost ready to bloom. Do you think they will come up later, next year, or not at all?

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      2. Hello Angela. I don’t think you need to worry yet. Transplanted bulbs take a while to settle back into their natural rhythm. Planting in the green, at just the moment daffodils are building themselves up for the next season, will have been a temporary set back. You should expect them to be a little later and a little weaker this year.

        With regard to your neighbour’s daffodils, there are varieties that will start blooming in December and those that won’t be flowering until May. This is perfectly normal so don’t drive yourself mad comparing as it’s unlikely you are growing the same ones. If you fancy Christmas daffodils then seek out N. ‘Rijnfeld’s Early Sensation’ or N. ‘Cedric Morris’. Dan

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  3. Lovely colourful and cheerful pictures with a much needed promise of spring to come. One year in Yorkshire I went out on Boxing Day, scraped off 4 inches of frosted soil then planted my tulip bulbs deeply, they flowered away and banished my guilt at their ill treatment. You are right, bulbs are survivors and I bet yours will flourish, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ok I feel guilty now ! Not quite guilty enough to get my wellies on and plant those bulbs right now, but they have definitely moved up my ‘To Do’ list ! Why do I hate bulb planting so much ? Wish I knew! Thanks for an informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Just bought 200 Eranthis hyemalis at a price I simply couldn’t resist. Put them overnight in a bowl of water and planted them afterwards. Very curious about what will happen…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. 3 x Hmmm…
    Last year the winter aconites didn’t turn out to be a great success. So you guess I should have learnt a little lesson by now. But surely, this year, all recently planted 50 Tulipa clusiana won’t let me down, will they ? Feeling rather optimistic and proud I “saved” those bulbs from the garbage bin 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was given a mixture of bulbs, gladiolus, acidanthea, brodiaea, Allie and oxalis. Unfortunately I had an accident in November and couldn’t get into the garden until now. Is it too late to plant them? .

    Liked by 1 person

  8. My 2018 spring-bulb planting delayed through a fluey cold: 1st wave started 2 days after Flu-jab in mid-Oct, then almost continuous nose blowing/eye-watering/left side sinus & ear ache until mid Jan; after 3rd wave started on Xmas Eve, subsided.

    So today I’m going out to plant all bulbs. It’s a gorgeous morning with temps in low teens expect by early pm here in East Yorks. Being on chalk Wolds I don’t have waterlogged soil to worry about. I’m nor sure how all will fare if we get that ‘blast from the east’ as we did this time last year, after a false too early spring.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. what if I wasn’t at home and forgotten daffodils and gladiolus bulbs are here waiting to be planted but it’s the beginning of June ???Should I plant them NOW ?????

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you SO much for your blog. I stumbled across it quite by chance & it’s really helped me! I have 250 bulbs all sitting in the shed at my church garden that never got planted last October. The council had a free bulb giveaway which I couldn’t resist! Unfortunately, my mum got sick so I was caring for her & not able to plant them. Reading your blog has encouraged me to go ahead and put them in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure! Nothing to be lost by planting them now. Winter hasn’t really kicked in yet anyway. Your bulbs might flower a little later but you’ll get flowers. Meanwhile I hope your mum is on the road to recovery. Dan

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    1. You should be fine with tulips planted now. Perhaps put chicken wire over your pots or keep them in a shed or garage until the first shoots appear. Once they are rooted and growing they will be less easy for the squirrels to pull out. Dan

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  11. I bought all my bulbs and then the wet just went on and on. Our garden, clay, has been uncharacteristically waterlogged. Had to walk on the grass eventually to get the leaves into the last garden bin of December and it completely churned it up. The borders were just too soggy. But this has given me hope that I can pop the bulbs in now. As things are a little drier, I think I will give it a shot.

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  12. I am in the Uk and have just been given some spring bulbs, Daffs, tulips and crocuses should I plant them anyway and hope they flower next year or should I store them until the autumn?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thank you for these tips and encouragement. We’ve just had our first frost and woke this am to first snow and then it melted away. I guess I’ll give these boxes of bulbs a try. I’m kicking myself for not doing it a few weeks ago when it was warmer! At least now I’ll be cold but hopeful.

    Liked by 1 person

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