(Almost) Never Too Late to Plant Bulbs

Ill.: Claire Tourigny & clipartstation.com

Normally spring flowering bulbs (tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocus, etc.) are planted from September through November in the Northern Hemisphere. In my climate (USDA zone 3), however, the soil often freezes before the end of October and I’ve occasionally had to plant bulbs in the frozen ground. Fortunately, soil freezes on the top first before frost reaches any depth, forming essentially a thin crust of frozen soil over the still friable garden soil below. So, I’ve found it fairly easy to simply break the frozen crust of soil like a sheet of thin ice and plant my bulbs.

However, if you know in advance that you won’t be able to plant bulbs until a very late date, you can put a thick layer of compost or leaf litter on the planting site. Both give off heat and will prevent the ground from freezing until you are ready to dig, at least for a while. Even so, you really should plant your bulbs by mid-December at the latest!

No-Dig Planting in Frozen Soil

I was once caught off guard by a late delivery of narcissus bulbs. It was only late November, but that year winter had come early and the ground was knee-deep in snow. What to do? I figured the bulbs were lost!

Then we had a January thaw, most unusual where I live. The snow didn’t all melt, but there had been several days of mild weather and rain and I was hopeful the ground had thawed out under the snow. So, I went out and dug a hole in the snow. Bad news: the soil was frozen solid. What to do? 

I figured I’d take a chance and did the following.

I went back inside and brought out a bag of potting mix. I dumped a layer of mix about 2 inches (5 cm) thick to the bottom of the hole so the bulbs would have something unfrozen to root into, then set the bulbs on that layer. I then covered them with about 6 inches (15 cm) of mix and shoveled more snow back on as insulation.

We’d see what we’d see.

Narcissus growing in a mound
The narcissus still bloom where I planted them nearly 30 years ago. Ill.: Claire Tourigny

Well, when the snow melted next April, up come the narcissus flowers from a little mound in the garden. They were in perfect condition! And last time I checked (I no longer live there, but the garden is easily visible from the street), they bloom there still, some 30 years later. 

Article adapted from one published on November 3, 2014.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

7 comments on “(Almost) Never Too Late to Plant Bulbs

  1. Pingback: A Few End of Season Tips - Laidback Gardener

  2. I bought a good bunch of freesias one year, and planted them in small phases at weekly intervals until they were all planted. In one pot, I planted a few phases in layers, with the newest phase on top of the previous. (Of course, this works only for a few phases until the first gets buried too deeply.) I was impresses by how it extended the bloom . . . or at least I believe that might have been what extended the bloom. I expected that, since the bulbs were all the same age, and ready to be planted at the same time, that they would all bloom at about the same time. Those that waited to be planted were not chilled in the refrigerator or anything. Those that were planted were stimulated to grow by the moisture of the soil, and really did start to grow sooner.

  3. Oh what a relief. Another way to stall planting bulbs. I have 200 of them to go in, and we were 16f last night in my zone 4a garden.

  4. OK so here in NJ, we planted dutch gold daffodils- hundreds of ’em!- in February and a bunch more in March!! they all came up- beautifully! They were a little late but no less beautiful. so there goes one myth!

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