Too Late to Plant Fall Bulbs?

Put your question and your shame to rest.  So, you’ve procrastinated like many gardeners.  I’ve done it too.  I’m pretty certain that among gardeners, we all sin and fall short of the calendar for planting fall bulbs at some point in our lives.  Now the ground is approaching frozen and you ask,

Is it too late to plant fall bulbs?

The answer is “Yes”…sort of.  Once the ground is frozen, the bulbs won’t have time to root or to enter their winter rest in the normal way.

But also “No”–I never let the rules of nature foil my attempts to recover with grace Redemption for your procrastination is indeed possible!  Here are two techniques for dealing with those bags of bulbs that seemed so enticing at the store in September and now haunt your life as an October opportunity lost.

Technique 1: Pot them up.  I do this by choice every year.  There is no excuse for letting those bags of bulbs taunt you, reminding you of your high hopes and lackluster planting performance.  I choose a pot that’s about a foot deep and large enough to accommodate a dozen or so bulbs.  Break the rules about spacing that appear on the bag.  If you’re going to break gardening rules, go big!  One of the rare instances I’d advocate such a thing is in the area of gardening!

I place about 6 inches of soil in the bottom of a pot and put bone meal or Holland Bulb Booster on top.  Then I add another 2 inches of soil and mix it well.  Then I place the bulbs… (tulips with flat side toward the edge of the pot)…on top of the soil and then cover it with soil up to approximately one inch of the surface.  Why the flat side, you ask?  That way the leaves that emerge will gracefully arch over the outside edge and the flowers will be more upright and visible.  True confession: I have been known to mix a few different kinds of bulbs to have an extended bloom time.  I water the pots and place them in our unheated garage named Arkansas.  Because Arkansas is unheated, the bulbs will have sufficient chilling to root first and then form their flowers deep inside the bulbs.  And there they sit for weeks of growing underground and just plain chillin’.

Can’t I just put the bags of bulbs in the basement and plant them in the spring, you ask?

No way, posey!  Storing bags of bulbs in the basement ignores that bulbs breathe and live throughout the winter during which the bulb will exhaust its food supply.  When you go to plant it, the shell of a former bulb will gasp and give up its ghost.  Don’t do it!  Instead, pot them up and roots will form, drawing both moisture and nutrients to feed the bulb.  In the spring you’ll have a lovely display that looks like this (right).  My garden by the mailbox has two pots like this each spring.

Technique 2: Give them a cold treatment for forcing in water or soil.  If you have a dark, cold place to chill them, they can be brought out of chilling in the late winter for beauty indoors.  Some people like to put theirs in their refrigerator.  Of course, I like to cook as well as garden and I do not have enough room in my refrigerator for bulbs among a bazillion leftovers.  Plus, there’s the issue of ethylene gas produced by ripening fruits and vegetables which will stunt, deform, or otherwise inhibit flowers.  What good is that?  Isn’t that what everyone wants:  a bunch of bulbs in the refrigerator all winter and nothing to show for it in the spring?  Not me.  I like my garage with the bulbs in paper grocery bags.  Just keep them from freezing!


Different bulbs require different amounts of chilling.

Flower Bulb Type

Chilling Time

(approx. weeks at 40 degrees)












I particularly like hyacinths because they can be forced in special vases that suspend the chilled bulb above the surface of water for a delightful burst of spring fragrance.  Low dishes with decorative stones are also nice, but the weight of the flower will typically topple it out of the low dishes.  Of course, you can also plant the already chilled bulbs in pots to plop in the ground in the spring too!

One final note:  Not all bulbs require chilling.  Paperwhites (which have a fragrance that is both loved and reviled, not by the same people) and amaryllis need no chilling at all.  They’re ready for action right out of the package.

So now you can recover with grace and lift your head from the shame of buying more bulbs than you had the energy, time, or initiative to plant in the early fall.  You no longer have to consign your bulbs to the Halloween graveyard of forgotten bulbs.  You can chill them and raise them to beauty in the spring…indoors and out!

Categories In the Garden, Inspiration | Tags: | Posted on October 28, 2012

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