Bulbs Forcing Gardening Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

What to Do with Forgotten Bulbs

What can you do with the fall bulbs you forgot to plant?

So, you bought a few packs of spring-flowering bulbs (tulips, daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, etc.) last fall, intending to plant them right away. Except it’s now winter and it’s apparently too late to plant them, what with the ground is frozen or covered with snow. It looks like you missed the boat. So, can you keep bulbs over the winter and plant them in the garden next spring?

In general, that’s not a good idea. Most of these bulbs will not bloom unless they undergo a long, cold winter. But there are several other options:

Extra-Late Planting

The most logical thing to do with fall bulbs is still to plant them outdoors, even though it’s later than normal.

If the soil is not yet frozen (that will depend on your local climate), there is no problem in planting tulip bulbs, narcissus, crocus, etc. as late as December or even January.

So what if the ground is covered with snow? Just brush the snow aside and dig a hole.

If there is snow on the ground, sometimes you can just brush it away before planting and still dig.

If the ground is frozen, but only on the surface, it’s easy enough to break through the frozen crust thus formed. Then just plant as you usually would, digging a hole three times deeper than the bulb is high (for tulips, a depth of 1 foot/30 cm is preferable) in rich, well-drained soil somewhere that receives spring sun. There is even an advantage to planting a bit late: often the surface soil refreezes quickly after planting, keeping the bulbs safe from squirrels.

No-Dig Planting

With no-dig planting, just dump packaged soil over the bulbs and let Mother Nature do the rest!

If crunching through a crust of frozen soil is not your idea of easy gardening, here’s an equally effective, but faster method.

First remove the snow, if there is any, then set the bulbs on the ground. Now, here’s the neat part: you don’t really have to dig a hole at all. Just cover them with a bag or two of garden soil or potting soil. Again, strive for a depth three times the height of the bulb. The warmth of the fresh soil will thaw the ground below, allowing the bulbs to root well… and they’ll be buried deeply enough that they won’t freeze until they’ve rooted in, which is what you want.

I’ve used the “no-dig planting” method during a January thaw and had great success.

This is the ideal method for planting bulbs where there is root competition too, such as in a wooded spot, even when the soil isn’t frozen.

Too Late, the Soil is Frozen Solid

The two previous methods only succeed when the soil is not frozen or only frozen on the surface. If the ground is frozen so deeply that a shovel can’t penetrate it, then it really is too late to plant your bulbs outside this season. But there are still other possibilities.

Forcing to the Rescue

Forcing bulbs is easy: just pot up your bulbs and keep them moist and cool.

You can also force bulbs indoors for spring bloom in pots and in fact, this is the most logical solution to apply when the ground is thoroughly frozen.

Just pot them up and water well. Seal the pot inside a plastic bag (to prevent evaporation, as you’ll want the roots to remain moist at all times) and place it in a refrigerator, a heated garage or a cold room. It takes about 13 to 14 weeks (three and a half months) of cold for the bulbs to get ready to bloom (a bit less for hyacinths), then in late March or early April, set the potted bulbs on a bright windowsill… and fill your home with blooms!

Forced bulbs just starting to bloom on a windowsill.

You will find more information about forcing in the article Forcing Bulbs without Twisting Arms.


It is also possible to store the bulbs dry in a cold spot over the winter, thus giving them the cold period they require for blooming… before you plant them. This technique is called “pre-chilling” and is commonly used to make tulips, hyacinths, narcissus, crocus, etc. flower in regions where they normally wouldn’t bloom because the winter isn’t cold enough for them (spring bulbs are cold climate plants: without a cold winter, they won’t flower). If you see tulips or hyacinths blooming at Disneyworld, on the French Riviera or in Australia, their bulbs were probably pre-chilled.

Store  your bulbs cool but well-aerated.

For pre-chilling, store your bulbs bare (i.e. unplanted) in the refrigerator, a barely heated garage or in a cold room over the winter. The temperature should remain between 34? and 40?F (1? and 5?C) at all times. They can be stored loose in an open box or container or placed in a mesh bag, a paper bag or a nylon stocking, but never inside a plastic bag (under plastic, there is too much risk of condensation and during pre-chilling the bulbs must remain dry).

Now, where spring comes around, plant the pre-chilled bulbs outdoors as soon as possible, while the soil is still cool too cold. There is then a very good chance that not only will they bloom beautifully this first spring, but that’ll they adapt and come back to flower again and again for many springs to come… that is, if you live in a cool to cold winter area. (In warm-winter climates, such bulbs will not come back and are best treated as annuals.)

So, to resume the situation: the very best way to ensure that spring-flowering bulbs bloom beautifully not only the following spring but also perennialize well still remains planting them outdoors in the autumn according to the traditional method. But at least you now know what to do if you miss that opportunity!

Looking for more information on planting bulbs late in the season? Read Can You Plant Bulbs in Winter?

16 comments on “What to Do with Forgotten Bulbs

  1. James Hampton Mays

    i bought lots of bulbs that had been in water so long in the pot that they are real soft will they live if i plant them in the ground

  2. Have not done much gardening, just ordered things to start planting inside then to put in the ground after the snow melts and ground thaws in about 2 to 4 weeks or so. In my order I got some daffodil bulbs. Many are starting to have shoots. I am reading how to best care for them, and now see that they should have been ordered in the late summer and planted in the fall. Is it alright to plant now in a planter, keep in a cool place then plant when the ground is ready? I’m thinking of planting in a cardboard box (like what cereal comes in). Is this a bad idea?

    • I suggest keeping them cool and planting them out when the ground thaws. That might work to a certain extent. Starting them indoors under warm conditions isn’t going to help. Still, ideally you’d buy and plant daffodil bulbs in the fall.

  3. Thank you for this. I’m in Minnesota. I have some bulbs that I didn’t get planted this fall and we’ve had some mild fall temps lately, around 40 degrees. Think I’ll try to still get them in the ground.

  4. We planted our daffodils here in NJ  in February (!) and March!!! They have all come up- it’s early April now. The March ones  are an inch shorter at this point but we just got a bloom from our February- planted batch of Dutch Golds and it’s beautiful and huge!! A happy surprise. Our verdict- plant ‘em!! They may be late but will still show up! 

  5. Jessica St Louis

    I bought boxes of tulip bulbs last fall and never got a round to planting them. We have kept them in the garage for this winter and I noticed that they are starting to sprout in the box. Can I plant them in a planter box and keep it in the garage until Spring or can I put the planter box outisde for the rest of the winter?

    • I don’t know your climate. If the soil in the box is going to freeze before the tulips have rooted, that will kill them. You’d be better off forcing them in the garage.

  6. Hi I’m so glad I found this article because I am desperate! I have 150 bulbs (tulips, crocus, iris, muscari, narcissus, allium) that I ordered special and then never got planted. They were expensive 🙁 Now it is mid-winter in IL and the ground is frozen but this week we are going to have temps in the 40’s. Do I get out there and try to dig and put them in the ground? I’m not sure if the soil will thaw quickly enough to dig very deep and it will be very wet as we have a foot of snow that is going to melt quickly. And then, of course, it will get cold again. I can tell some of the bulbs have perished but many still look healthy. I am just sick over this and feel awful. I want to try to save these poor bulbs. Please any helpful suggestions would be much appreciated!

    • If the ground is not frozen, you might still be able to plant them, but I suspect it will be frozen and impossible to dig in. And it’s going to be quite a job. Forcing might be the best option for the bulbs that still seem to be in good shape. There’s a limit to what you can do!

  7. Alexia Dalton

    About 2 weeks ago I bought several types of bulbs on clearance at Walmart (daffodils and alliums mainly). They were in the outdoor cages section of Walmart when waiting to be sold. I live in El Paso, and the average low in December is 33, going up to 37 in February. I planted them in huge storage tubs and put them in my greenhouse. Should I put them in an outside area with freezing temps instead?

    • They need a combination of cold temperatures and reasonable soil humidity in order to root and (later) to bloom. Just being outside dry doesn’t do it. So do put them outside. Actual freezing isn’t necessary and is indeed harmful if they haven’t yet rooted, but if you put the pots in a protected spot, you ought to be able to avoid that. This is very iffy: I hope you got a good price on the bulbs!

  8. Thank You so much for the info. Had 200+ bulbs arrive today Nov 27th, South Dakota. Snow on ground, frigid temps, partially frozen soil. Didn’t know what do until I read this article. Will be out there tomorrow with my rake and fork tomorrow determined to get my bulbs in!.

  9. What a great post! A few years ago I had one of those 500 bulbs-in-a-bag narcissus mixes that sat in our studio for the entire winter (it’s cool in there, but still) and I couldn’t stand to throw them out in the spring, They were all dry, and seemed dead. Still, I planted them in March and the although they didn’t bloom that year, the following year they were magnificent. Two years ago in January, a fellow plants person came to our house for a primula society meeting and brought some species crocus which he had purchased on markdown at the supermarket on the way from New Hampshire. He told me to just plant them in the ground and they’ll do fine – it was a mild January, and now they have formed nice clumps. Worth adding though that Tulips don’t fare that well – when kept at room temperature or out of the ground for too long – most abort their buds, so maybe manage expectations with those. I did learn this year from a bulb expert that surprisingly Paperwhite narcissus prefer to be stored in warmer temps before one can get to planting them (like on the top of the fridge) while all other Dutch bulbs such hyacinths, tulips and other narcissus species prefer to spend their autumn much cooler, which protects their buds. (40 -50 deg.) So much to learn with bulbs, but always rewarding, right?

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: