Is It Too Late To Plant Bulbs: When To Plant Bulbs
By: Heather Rhoades
There is no doubt that some of the best deals on spring blooming bulbs happen in late fall. Many people assume this is because it is past the time for when to plant spring bulbs. This is not the case. These bulbs are on sale because people have stopped buying bulbs and the store is liquidating them. These sales have nothing to do with when to plant bulbs.
When to Plant Bulbs
Is it too late to plant bulbs? Here is how you know:
When is it too late to plant bulbs?
The main thing you need know about when to plant bulbs is that you can plant bulbs until the ground if frozen. Frost does not make a difference in when to plant spring bulbs. Frost mostly affects plants above the ground, not those below the ground.
That being said, your bulbs will perform better in the spring if they have a few weeks to establish themselves in the ground. For best performance, you should plant bulbs a month before the ground is frozen.
How to tell if the ground is frozen
When trying to determine if it is too late to plant bulbs, the simplest way to test if the ground is frozen is to use a shovel and try to dig a hole. If you are still able to dig a hole without too much trouble, the ground has not yet frozen. If you have trouble digging a hole, especially if you cannot get the shovel into the ground, then the ground is frozen and you should consider storing the bulbs for the winter.
You now have an answer to the question, “Is it too late to plant bulbs?”. Knowing when to plant spring bulbs, even if you get a late season deal on bulbs, means that you can plant more spring blooming bulbs for less money.
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Read more about General Bulb Care
Calculating Late Planting Dates
The maturation date is on the seed packet. This is the time frame beginning when you plant the seeds and harvest the first vegetables. Most vegetables have a maturation date of 50 to 75 days (some longer).
Examples of Cool Vegetable Maturation Dates
Some short growing cycles for vegetables that you may want to sow in a late vegetable garden include:
- Beets: Maturation is between 45 and 60 days, depending on variety.
- Cabbage: 65 to 75 days. Cabbage will grow in 60°F to 65°F.
- Carrots: 50-80 days
- Lettuce: 45 to 55 days some varieties 75 - 85
- Nappa cabbage: 57 days
- Radishes: 21 days
- Spinach: 42 days
Apply Maturation Days to Calendar
You can take the maturation day number and apply it to the calendar, starting with the day you'll plant the seeds.
Find Your Zone
Once you know how many days the maturation period is, you need to review the USDA Hardiness Zone Map to find the first frost date for your zone. This approximate date (usually a week time frame) will give you a timeline to use in determining if you have enough time to plant the seeds and produce enough vegetables to harvest. You'll want the minimum of a week to harvest a few vegetables. Longer means a bigger harvest.
Timeline for Planting
If the plant takes longer than the calculated time frame needed to grow and harvest, then it's too late to plant. You're better off to start planning for next year's garden.
Example for Calculating Last Planting Date
If you're planting a 50-day maturation cucumber, then simply walk back the date from the expected first frost to find the latest time you can plant seeds. You'll need to know your USDA Hardiness Zone to find your region's frost dates (first and last).
Is It Too Late to Plant My Bulbs?
When to Plant Flower Bulbs
Summary: Depends where you live, but if you have bulbs that are supposed to be perennials in your climate, you should generally plant them as soon as possible and anytime of year is better than never planting at all! If your bulbs are crispy to the core and years old, then you probably missed your planting window!
***For a discussion on different seasons of bulbs and what to plant when, take a look at this link: How To Move My Spider Lilies Around***
If we are talking about traditional fall planted bulbs in the Southern United States, you really should try to have them planted by the end of December.
But how early can you plant them? The truth is, most of our bulbs are harvested in the summer time, cleaned, sorted, packaged, and shipped to stores/consumers by early fall. However, locally produced bulbs can be shipped “in the green” meaning that they still have their foliage on them. This means you can plant these fall planted/spring blooming bulbs as early as the spring if you receive them with foliage.
Flower bulbs shipped in the green will begin to have their foliage die down soon after “lifting” or harvesting them. This is a normal process and the foliage should not be cut down and the bulbs should still be planted as soon as possible. The advantage to receiving bulbs in the green, is that it is easy to see what you are receiving, know where you are planting them, and most importantly get the bulbs when you want them and have time to plant them. The disadvantage is that the bulbs really thrive on having their foliage collect as much sun in the spring as possible. Have no fear, the right garden bulbs for your environment will recover just fine and be with you for generations.
For perennial bulbs that are well suited for your climate, it’s never really too early or too late to plant them, but there are ideal times. See this blog post here: https://bulbhunter.com/2021/01/what-is-the-best-way-to-transplant-red-spider-lilies-or-how-do-i-move-my-flower-bulbs-around/
For further detail, let’s look at some specific examples:
- Crinums: it is rarely “too late” to plant them. They are so big they can live 2 years out the ground in a cool dry spot. However, the longer they are out the ground, the longer it will take them to “recover” and the longer they are exposed to disease and pests.
- Tulips/Narcissus/Hyacinths etc. These traditional fall bulbs harvested in the summer for fall planting start to decline fast during the spring season. If you miss the fall/early winter window, they are going to struggle to survive.
- Spring planted bulbs/semi-tropical bulbs: usually depends on the size. Crinums mentioned above last for a long time because they are so big. Rain lilies (Zephyranthes, Habranthus) won’t last nearly as long because they are so small.
Bulbs still “breath” through their stomate (remember bulbs are nothing more than compressed modified leaves so they have stomate or stoma). This means they will dry out eventually, even when left in a cool dark spot (away from sun and freezing temperatures) and out of harms way (away from disease and pests that will eat them). The best way to find out if it is too late to plant your bulbs, is to take a sacrificial sample, slice it open, and see if the leaves are still white with some moisture. If so, plant your bulbs! If you want an even quicker test, try to grip the bulb tight or squeeze with your fingers…if the leaves give way to a brown/gray void of old leaves, then you’ve probably missed your window. I fall back to something I say often, don’t wait for the perfect time to plant your bulbs. Plant them when you can…it doesn’t all have to be perfect! Hope this helps you enjoy your gardening experience!
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.
Planting in Pots During Winter or Spring
Instead of planting bulbs directly into the ground, you can plant them in pots using regular potting soil. Plant the bulbs to a more shallow level than you would in the ground, with just an inch or so of soil above the bulb. Place the plant in your refrigerator, covered with plastic to prevent the soil from drying out. Once the bulb begins to sprout, remove the plastic water the plant often enough so the soil remains damp, and let the plant chill for about three months before bringing it out to a sunny window. Keep the plant indoors, or plant in your garden in late spring.
- Floridata: Tulipa spp.
- Farmer's Almanac: Can I Plant My Tulips in the Spring?
- University of Illinois Extension: Planting Spring Bulbs Before Winter
- The New Sunset Western Garden Book Kathleen Norris Brenzel
- The National Gardening Association: Forcing Tulips Indoors
Susan Lundman began writing about her love of gardening and landscape design after working for 20 years at a nonprofit agency. She has written about plants, garden design and gardening tips online professionally for ten years on numerous websites. Lundman belongs to numerous gardening groups, tends her home garden on 2/3 acre and volunteers with professional horticulturists at a 180 acre public garden where she lives on Bainbridge Island in Washington State.