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Waiting to Plant Bulbs


Double tulip ‘Creme Upstar’, one of the many reasons to store your bulbs the right way.

My refrigerator is about half bulbs and half food.

In some households, this might be considered a bad thing. Even weird.

For others, it’s a sign of good things to come.

If you don’t have enough refrigerator space for all of your bulbs, you can give room to the most important ones first. Lily bulbs, as I’ve mentioned before, never actually go dormant, so I’d say it’s most important to give them refrigerator room.

Of course,  it’s also most important to plant them first. Not only can they be planted at summer temperatures, they actually take advantage of that warm weather to make  stronger growth for next year.

The moisture-loving frittilaries (some of them like it dry; some of them crave year-round moisture) are pretty similar. Like lilies, they have scales, and are shipped in plastic bags with soil around them; this kind of bulb may just not be designed to be out of moist soil.

Tulips, on the other hand, have a tendency to disappear if you plant them in moist soil, or while it’s still hot. Van Engelen recommends planting them when soil temperatures are about 55 F (13C). Soil generally stays warmer than the air for some time, so that means a fairly chilly outdoor temperature.  After it starts being nippy, but before the ground freezes, is what they recommend.

And in a perfect world with absolutely consistent weather, it would happen that way. In a perfect world, your properly-stored bulbs would arrive at just the right time for planting them. But we’re not in a perfect world, in case you hadn’t noticed, and weather is as changeable as–well–the weather.

There’s also the little matter of schedule. I have planted tulips in flying snow and in freezing rain and about two months later than I should have. (The soil wasn’t frozen, but I was. ) The bulbs did nicely in most cases, but I can tell you it’s a much pleasanter experience if you don’t wait for the rain and snow part.

This year, it’s not just my schedule; it’s the climate’s. It’s been hot late into the year. So even though I bought from specialized bulb dealers who ship at the proper date for planting, the proper date for planting turns out not to be the proper time for planting. It hasn’t cooled down yet.  In order to get the best out of my tulips, I have to store them.

I have often stored tulips in cool places other than the refrigerator. Cool places are in low cupboards, basements, the floor of a shed, storage room, or even under the bed. (Heat rises, coolness sinks.) Just make sure it’s somewhere where sun doesn’t hit and it doesn’t get too hot.

Also make sure that rodents can’t get to them. They adore tulip bulbs and will be happy to eat them up for you. And bulbs need to breathe, or they get moldy and even rot.  So don’t seal them up in closed box or bag.

This year, I squeezed all of my tulips into the refrigerator. It was still so hot that I just couldn’t find any other safe place that was really cool. I need to check my own refrigerated bulbs, to be sure they’re getting enough ventilation.

The refrigerator is actually a little bit cold for bulbs. Most refrigerators are in the high 30s to low 40sF (-1 to 4C); Van Engelen recommends storing bulbs at 50 to 70 degrees Farenheit (10 to 21 degrees Celsius); Old House Gardens recommends 40 to 50F (4 to 10 degrees C). But I figure it’s much better than what happens when you keep bulbs in the heat. If tulips bulbs are in the heat too long, they give up the ghost, and don’t flower. And it has been hot. 80 or 90 degrees F (27 to 32C). That won’t last much longer, but it’s not a good idea to plant any of my tulip bulbs until it cools off.  As the Old House Gardens instructions say, the later you wait, the happier tulips are.

Another thing to be aware of in refrigerator storage is that gasses from ripening vegetables and fruit can affect the bulbs. (So can exhaust from cars, if you’re inclined toward garage storage.) I’m hoping that shutting all of my produce in a crisper will keep that from happening.

Daffodils–and all the other kinds of narcissi–seem to be pretty much resistant to any kind of treatment–they may even sprout if you take them out of a forgotten bag which has been stored in the heat until the bulbs withered thin. (I don’t have to tell you this is a biographical story, do I?)  In this case, most of the bulbs may be brown all the way through, and those won’t make it. But otherwise narcissi are always worth a try, no matter what their condition, or the weather.  They may not make a flower that year, but they are likely to come back. Narcissi are tough.

I don’t know as much about the storage needs of the huge variety of other, smaller bulbs. But this information will at least give you some intelligent arguments for claiming refrigerator space.


Van Engelen planting instructions (come with bulbs; I couldn’t find them on their website)

Old House Gardens planting instructions

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Sylvia (England) November 6, 2008, 4:26 am

    I am enjoying your posts on tulips, I do like their bright colours in spring. I just hate having to use them as annual but they don’t usually come back for me. When I lived in a colder garden a few old tulips came back for me, I think were I live now our winters are just not cold enough. But I will keep trying!

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere November 10, 2008, 4:34 pm

    Hi Sylvia, I think you’re right about the cold winters making a difference. Besides climate, some varieties of tulips come back better than others–usually the older ones, as you mentioned, or ones that are closer to the wild, like fosterianas (emperor tulips), greggiis (did I spell that right?), bataliniis, and kaufmannias. I’ll report back on my “Tulips and Calcium” experiment, to see if that helps them return better.

    Even if they disappear, though, I think it’s worth it to have at least some tulips: they’re so cheering. So I support you in trying.

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