Tulips: Chilling for spring planting


I’d like to plant tulips, and perhaps other spring blooming bulbs, but I didn’t do it in the fall. Can I plant tulip bulbs in containers now,for this spring and keep them in the garage until it warms up? And will I have to treat these as annuals?  That is, will they re-bloom in containers each year?  Thank you.


Dear Writer,

While you don’t mention exactly where you’re located, you do refer to “spring”, and “warming up”, which are always music to any gardener’s ears. Perhaps you’re in the south-central region of Ontario,  that often has extreme cold in the winter, in which Toronto is included.

Tulips are in a group of hardy perennial bulbs, including snowdrops, crocus and daffodils, that should be planted in the fall, thereby allowing their systems to hardy-up, and benefit from the winter dormant period. So, unfortunately, the bad news is that for your tulips to bloom in the spring, the bulbs must have gone through that chilling process. This chilling is provided naturally, in cold winter climates, by planting the bulbs in early fall.

But the good news is that your timing is perfect, and right about now you’ll be able to start “artificially ” chilling your bulbs. Place the bulbs in a brown paper bag, label, tape it shut, and store in the produce section of the refrigerator. Don’t freeze! Keep there for 12 to 14 weeks. This should take you to the end of April ±.  The ideal temperature is between 40-50F, or 10C. By the way, some bulb companies sell pre-chilled bulbs that are ready to plant in the garden. They should be planted as soon as you receive them. The cessation of cold is signals the bulb to begin growing roots and shoots.

And so you, too, should plant your “chilled” bulbs as soon as the ground is workable, and follow the supplier’s directions for planting, either in the ground or, as you suggested, in containers. As an aside, many gardeners like yourself, who just didn’t get to fall planting, profit from the arrival at the local nurseries, and corner markets, of  many varieties of greenhouse-grown bulbs, rich with unopened blooms, and set them into de-frosted ground as very early as possible. Either way you choose, come spring you should be able to enjoy plenty of blooms!

In terms of re-blooming, once the flowering period ends, cut the developing seed heads below the bloom; leaving as much of the flowering stem on the plant as possible. This allows energy to be channelled back into the bulb instead of into seed production. The leaves are also important in the production and storage of energy for the bulb’s bloom next year. Therefore, leave the foliage on the plant until it turns yellow (approximately 6 weeks). Fertilize the bulbs soon after flowering with compost or 20-20-20 fertilizer. Generally, the best practice is to place the bulbs in the ground the following fall.

And while you’re “chilling”, for your interest, are a few related links: