Plant Tulip Bulbs in the Winter

Edited by Sarah Maloney, Eng

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Last summer I was visiting my local greenhouse and snatched up A LOT of tulip bulbs from the previous spring at an amazing price. I threw them in the trunk and once I got home diligently placed them in a couple large brown paper bags and resigned them to my basement while visions of a spring garden display even the Keukenhof Amsterdam's Tulip & Flower Festival would envy filled my head.

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But, like most awe-inspiring visions that enter my brain this one slowly turned ruined. Foolishly, I broke one of my fundamental rules - I didn't put the bags in an area I could see as a constant reminder. I forgot all about them and my awe-inspiring vision.

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When fall rolls around the weeding and transplanting and mulching and grass cutting and final garden produce picking and canning gets the best of even the most skilled gardener and spring seems very far away. If you've ever misplaced a bag of bulbs, or like me, hidden a bag of bulbs only to remember or find them well into winter and despondently resigned yourself to a barren spring garden - don't despair. You CAN successfully plant those bulbs!

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Guidelines for Gardeners in North America Zones 3 - 7

More particularly those gardeners who live in a zone wherein tulips are planted in the fall for blooms in the spring.

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  1. 1
    The Science
    The reason so many of us who live in climates with harsh winters covet hardy bulbs like tulips, crocus and hyacinth is because they are capable of surviving the winters and bloom as the first signs of spring - striking color pushing up through what was frozen soil in a season of drab. Tulips actually need the cold weather and benefit from this dormant period. The reason we plant in the fall (anytime before the ground is frozen) is to naturally give these bulbs the chilling process they require to bloom. The key word is "natural" and if your tulip bulbs like mine were nestled in a cool dank basement you can replicate the chilling process artificially.
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  2. 2
    Clean out the beer fridge
    In order to give your tulips bulbs an artificial chilling process all you need to do is throw them in the fridge. You might be wondering "Well, if they need to chill, can't I just put them in the garage?" You could, BUT you're not going to get a constant temperature and if they freeze your process will be irreconcilable. You don't want to freeze them. Instead, put the bulbs in a brown paper bag, identify them if necessary, close the bag tightly (use tape or staples) and store it in your fridge. The preferred placement is in the produce section. You want to maintain a temperature of 40-50F, or 10C.
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  3. 3
    Let them chill
    Think of the natural chilling process - winter lasts for about 3 - 4 months or 12 - 16 weeks. You want to do the same with your artificial chilling. So you should chill your tulip bulbs for 12 - 14 weeks. If you go over this time they should not be affected, however, if your chilling is under 12 weeks the bulbs may not perform as expected.
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  4. 4
    Work 'em
    As soon as the ground is workable (unfrozen) and after the 12-14 weeks chilling process get those bulbs in! The ground might be a bit less workable than you're used to, it obviously won't be as pliable as sun warmed ground in July, but take your time, follow the instructions on your planting bag and plant those bulbs. You want to plant 8 inches deep measuring from the base of the bulb. That means you need to dig a little deeper (depending on the size of your bulb) and 4-6 inches apart. Ensure you are planting the bulbs pointy side up. Don't worry if you accidentally plant some upside down they should still bloom but they might take a bit longer.
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  5. 5
    Like most artificial adaptations, depending on the type of bulb, how well they were stored and the artificial chilling conditions, you may not get ALL the bulbs you expected but if you follow these directions you will get a luscious spring garden. Once summer arrives and the blooms die off, cut the leaves back and next spring you will have an even more astounding garden full of flourishing tulips.
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Tips and Tricks

  • If you missed both buying and planting tulip bulbs, many bulb distributors offer pre-chilled bulbs for this very reason. Some gardeners actually prefer pre-chilled as the chilling condition can be more consistent than natural chilling. Check out bulb and seed distributors for pre-chilled bulbs or ask your local greenhouse. Most are open and working by March and should have some or distributors they can refer you to.
  • Tulip aficionados know that tulips arrive from Holland once a year, and once they're gone - that's it. Last year (2016) a new tulip was produced by Dutch growers to celebrate Canada's 150th anniversary. Canadians were working diligently last Fall to plant 150 bulbs in their gardens to commemorate the anniversary. Can you do it?
  • Be bold! Throw in different colours in different places, cut the flowers and bring them inside to enjoy!
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If you have problems with any of the steps in this article, please ask a question for more help, or post in the comments section below.


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Article Info

Categories : Gardening

Recent edits by: Sarah Maloney

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