Question: Help! I just discovered two bags of tulip bulbs that I forgot to plant in the fall. Can I still plant them this spring?
Answer: You wrote me on March 17th. Essentially, therefore, in early spring (at least in the northern hemisphere), while you would normally plant tulip bulbs in the fall (September, October or November),
The usual growth cycle for a tulip is to produce roots in the fall in cool soil and grow under the snow all winter to be ready to bloom early in the spring. After blooming, the plant goes dormant for the summer before reawakening in the fall with the return of cool soil temperatures. Thus, planting tulip bulbs in the spring is not just asking it to make a minor change in its growth cycle, but throws it off its schedule by a good half year!
Had you caught the error earlier, say in December or early January, you could have potted the bulbs up and forced them (gotten the bulbs to bloom off-season in pots) in a cold room or barely heated garage, but for that, you’d need to offer about 14 weeks of cold. That seems unlikely at this late date.
The most logical thing to do with tulip bulbs found unplanted in the spring is to compost them. There is a season for everything and you have simply missed the bulb planting window this year.
Nevertheless, there may be one final way of “saving” them.
Where Were They Stored?
At least, you might be able to save them if you stored the bulbs indoors. If you’ve just found them in a shed or unheated garage in a climate where the winter is cold, that is, a spot where they will have undergone freezing temperatures, there is nothing you can do. Bulbs that freeze completely before they have formed roots will be dead. Touch them and see: they’ll be soft and rotting.
Planting Fall Bulbs in the Spring
If you did store them in your home, in a heated garage or in some other frost-free spot, there is still a (very) slight bit of hope, especially if the bulbs still look plump and healthy. By this time of year, they’ll probably show growth at the tip of the bulb, a sign they really want to get growing!
Plant these bulbs in the garden as soon as the ground has thawed: they’ll appreciate the still-cold soil. It’s very unlikely they’ll bloom this spring, however: the embryonic flower, hidden inside the bulb at the time of purchase, is probably dead by now. However, at least they should be able to produce leaves. And thanks to their leaves, the bulbs will be able to capture and store solar energy and thus regain their strength for growth the following spring.
At least, that’s the theory. The bad news is that most hybrid tulips, including the ever-so-popular Triumph tulips, are not very perennial. They were bred to supply one single spectacular show of flowers, then deteriorate. They’ll therefore have a lot of difficulty with this method. You may see them produce leaves next year, but it’s quite likely they’ll simply never bloom. Botanical tulips are tougher and will likely recover and bloom again. If not next spring, the following one. Also, most other spring-flowering bulbs (narcissi, hyacinths, small bulbs, etc.) are also more perennial than hybrid tulips and thus more likely to eventually recover from such an affront.
Don’t Wait Until Fall
It is not a good idea to hold on to your tulip bulbs even longer, until next fall, thinking to plant them at the “right season.” Bulbs aren’t seeds, many of which can be stored for years and still germinate. Bulbs continue to carry out respiration, albeit at a reduced rate, throughout their dormancy. In delaying their planting by a full year, you’ll have effectively killed them.
You can abuse bulbs to quite an amazing degree, but planting them a full year later than you should is really asking them just too much!