The 10 Most-asked Bulb Questions

Get answers to the most commonly asked questions on fall-planted bulbs.

1. Why can’t I plant tulips in the spring?

Spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips and daffodils must be planted in the fall to bloom in spring because they require a long period of cool temperatures to spark the biochemical process that causes them to flower. In fall, it’s optimal to get them into the ground six weeks before hard freezes. They need time to develop strong roots.

2. It’s February and I just found a bag of bulbs that I forgot to plant. Do I save them till next year?

No! You cannot save them until next year – you must either plant them now or throw them out.

Here’s how to decide: Plant them now if they are still firm and plump; toss them if they are soft, mushy or dried out. Bulbs are living plants, not seeds and must be planted the same season. Either somehow get them into the ground outside or if the varieties are suited to forcing, chill them indoors in a refrigerator or unheated spot (38° F to 50° F) for 10 weeks or more, or as long as you have till spring arrives! 

Bottom Line: Bulbs are tough nuts, so to speak, and contain a full storehouse of food. They will try their best to bloom no matter how late it is in the season. This is a case of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Chances are often good that you will get some results, even if you plant them late.

3. Spring weather can be erratic. What do I do when we get warm weather and the bulbs come up, but then we get a cold snap or winter returns?

This answer surprises many people: Do nothing! Tulips and other spring-flowering bulbs are tough. They can usually take what Mother Nature dishes out. When the weather turns, don’t dash outside to cover early-sprouting bulbs with extra “weather protection.” A short freeze won’t do lasting damage to young bulb shoots and buds, though it may “burn” already open blossoms. Many, such as snowdrops, crocuses and early rock garden narcissi are supposed to come up in very early spring, even peeking through the snow. Mother Nature has provided them with the means to survive. An unseasonably warm spell may cause some bulbs to bloom earlier than anticipated, but in most cases won’t result in damage. When the weather cools again, the growth process also slows. It’s all a marvel of nature.


4. Should I fertilize bulbs in spring?

In the first season of bloom, flower bulbs don’t need fertilizer. A bulb is a natural food storehouse. For naturalized bulbs, you can fertilize in spring or in fall. In fall, use a controlled-release bulb food or top dress with compost or well-rotted cow manure. If you did not fertilize in fall, then fertilize with a nitrogen-rich quick release fertilizer in early spring, when the shoots of the bulbs first appear. Do not fertilize later in spring or after bloom.

5. My bulb plants came up but didn’t bloom. Does this mean I can’t grow bulbs here?

If bulb leaves appear healthy, but no flowers appear, one of several things probably happened: the bulbs were exposed to high heat or ripening fruit (which gives off ethylene gas) prior to planting, both of which damage the embryo flowers inside fully-formed bulbs; or the planting was dosed with a high nitrogen fertilizer (such as lawn fertilizer) which encourages the growth of leaves but not blooms. If your bulbs were ones that readily naturalize and spread over time, then all is not lost: These bulbs should bloom in future spring seasons.

On the other hand, if your bulbs were types grown primarily as annuals in your area (eg. tulips), then their gig is up and they are unlikely to rally for another year’s bloom.[pagebreak]

Narcissus Ice Follie
Narcissus Ice Follie

6. My bulbs just didn’t come up at all? What gives?

This kind of disappointment is generally caused by:

   • Animals eating the bulbs or young plants (For more on this, go to: How Do I Keep Squirrels From Digging Up Bulbs?), or
   • Bulb rot caused by planting in wet soggy soil.

The Dutch have a saying: “Bulbs don’t like wet feet.” They will not thrive in soil where water collects or puddles (for example at the base of a hill or slope, under drain pipes, or where heavy clay is abundant). In the future, you’ll want to either plant bulbs elsewhere or amend the soggy area with compost, peat, sand or well-rotted manure to improve its drainage.

7. What should I do after tulips fade in spring? Should I trim off the fading leaves? What about daffodils?

After tulip flowers have faded, dead-head them by clipping off the faded blooms so that they won’t go to seed. Narcissi (daffodils) do not require dead-heading, just let them be. But don’t mess with the leaves! The main requirement for bulb flowers in the post-bloom period is to leave the foliage alone so the plant can put its energy into recharging its bulb for next spring’s performance. This energy charge is gained through photosynthesis as the plant uses the sun’s energy to turn basic elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium into food.

This food is stored in the bulb’s scales, the white fleshy part of the bulb, for use next spring. It is necessary to leave the green foliage exposed to the sun until it yellows or six weeks have elapsed since blooming. Fight the urge to trim back or constrain the leaves during their die-back phase after blooming. Do not bunch, tie, braid or cut bulb plant leaves during this period. Dealing with the fading foliage is basically one of those things that lovers of spring bulbs must deal with. Camouflage will be the best strategy for die-back management.

Try interplanting bulbs with annuals or perennials so that the latter’s leaves mask declining bulb foliage as best as possible. Among perennials prized for this task are hostas, daylilies, heucheras, peonies, bleeding hearts and others that leaf out early. As a planting strategy, plant clumps of bulbs instead of full beds. This way you will have a lovely spring show, and plenty of room to plant camouflaging companions.

Tulip Beauty of Volendam
Tulip Beauty of Volendam

8. Why do tulips need deadheading but daffodils don’t?

Dead heading refers to the act of removing withered flowerheads after bloom to discourage the flowers from going to seed. The act of setting seed can use up as much as 30 percent of the energy of tulips in spring. Bees love tulip flowers, thus seeds result, but they rarely visit daffodil blooms. That’s why it’s smart to deadhead tulips, encouraging subsequent bloom while providing a tidier look, but daffodils do not require this kind of care. In fact, unlike tulips, after bloom daffodils don’t really look all that unruly anyway!


9. My tulips don’t do well at all the second season of bloom. I’ve been told that lifting the bulbs, storing them for the summer and replanting them in the fall will improve their performance. Is this true?

This old-fashioned method is difficult, yields mediocre results and is generally a lot of bother for little result. It is better to look for those tulips with a natural propensity for repeat performance. Botanical or species varieties and their hybridized strains are generally excellent garden performers and sometimes will even naturalize.

Among hybrids, try: the red ‘Charles’, the pink-red ‘Christmas Marvel’ and the red ‘Couleur Cardinal’. Triumph tulips such as the pink ‘Don Quichotte’ and lily-flowered ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Ballade’ should be good for more than one season. Others offering potential for a second season of color include tall Darwin hybrids such as yellow ‘Golden Parade’, red ‘Oxford’, and orange-red ‘Hollands Glorie’. When “perennializing” or naturalizing tulips, plant them about eight inches deep (20 cm) and choose a well-drained spot in the yard.

Tulip Queen of Night
Tulip Queen of Night

10. What if I forgot to plant bulbs last fall? Spring just doesn’t feel right without blooming daffodils and tulips?

You’re in luck – times have changed! Potted tulips, daffodils and crocus are now widely available in spring for planting outdoors like bedding plants or using indoors as houseplants. Today, many garden retailers and supermarkets offer beautiful forced potted bulbs in spring. These can be used for instant springtime color, indoors or out.

For best results and longest bloom when planting outdoors, choose pots with young green sprouts just beginning to show buds. These can be planted out in spring without suffering frost damage, as young bulb plants are designed by nature to handle tough early spring conditions. Once planted, sudden snows shouldn’t bother them.

The time to start planting potted bulbs outdoors as bedding plants is once winter starts to wane and spring is nigh. Take the plastic pot of bulbs, tap out the growing plants soil and all, and plant “as is” into a larger container outdoors or right into the garden. Safeguard containers from extreme wind and from cold exposure. You don’t want bulbs to freeze; containers don’t have the thermal insulation of a garden bed.

Top candidates for planting out include: potted tulips, daffodils, tiny Iris reticulata, bright crocuses and hyacinths. All are readily available in spring. If weather in your area is still dipping close to freezing, acclimate the potted plants to outdoor weather in a protected but unheated spot for a day or two before planting. As with other spring-flowering bulbs (which are generally planted directly into the soil in the fall and over-winter there till the spring), they’ll just deal with weather as it comes!