Bulbs Gardening

Why Do We Plant Spring Bulbs in the Fall?

By Larry Hodgson

Have you ever wondered why gardeners plant spring-flowering bulbs in the fall? We’ve been doing this for so many generations that this now appears quite normal, but in fact we don’t plant bulbs then because we have to, but because it’s more convenient for the merchants to sell them to us in the fall.

Let me explain.

History of a Delayed Planting

Dry bulbs on a sieve.
From the bulb’s point of view, the best time to move or divide it would be as soon it goes dormant, that is in late spring or early summer. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Logically speaking, the ideal time to plant bulbs of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses and other spring-flowering bulbs would be in late spring or early summer when their foliage turns yellow and they go dormant. That way, the gardener knows exactly where to find them in the garden and digging them up is therefore easy. Just divide them and replant them, it’s that simple. There is absolutely no reason to delay their planting until fall. Remaining dormant under the soil in the summer is part of their growth cycle. They then start growing again in the fall, underground, when a combination of moister soil and a drop in temperatures tells them it’s time to start preparing for the coming season.

If, while gardening, you accidentally dig up bulbs—and that certainly happens often enough! —, most gardeners know enough to replant them immediately… and that is precisely what you should do. There is no need to pack them up into a bag or box and leave them in the garden shed until fall. If you do that, probably about half the time they’re dead before fall arrives. (Conditions in a garden shed are not ideal for storing bulbs.)

However, if you want to sell spring-flowering bulbs, a late spring planting season is not at all convenient. They would have to be dug up, cleaned, checked for insects, diseases and blemishes, sorted by size, packed, shipped and ready for sale in just a few weeks. Even then, they’d have to compete for your attention with all the beautiful annual and perennial plants already in bloom that fill garden centers at the same season.

That’s why Dutch growers, who supply more than 80% of the hardy bulbs sold around the world, have learned that if they keep the bulbs in warehouses under strictly controlled temperatures and humidity, mimicking the conditions found underground, they can delay planting—and therefore sales—until fall.

Tulip bulbs being prepared for sale.
Bulb growers allow themselves an entire summer to prepare spring bulbs for sale.

This gives them all summer to harvest, clean, sort, pack, etc. And it means they can take advantage of inexpensive means of transportation, such as container ships, to deliver the bulbs. Delaying sales until fall means there’s no need to rush! If even if bulbs dug in June don’t reach local stores until September, the usual scenario, that gives most gardeners over two months to plant them, something you’ll simply want to do before the soil freezes.

Soil Temperatures Are Not a Factor

It’s amusing to hear so-called experts insist on the importance of waiting until the soil cools down in the fall before you plant your bulbs. You often hear temperatures like 50 or 60° F (10 or 15° C) bandied about, but hardy bulbs from previous years, already in the ground, are going through whatever temperatures Mother Nature throws at them and still do fine.

Meat thermometer.
No need to check temperatures: just go ahead and plant!

I imagine a poor gardener going out every day with a meat thermometer to check the temperature of the soil, waiting for the right moment before planting their bulbs. Yet soil temperature is just not an important factor in planting bulbs: they were designed by nature to be underground, no matter how hot the soil gets! Some grow in soil that becomes baking hot in summer, yet they thrive.

As a result, there is simply no need to take soil temperatures into account when planting your bulbs. Just plant the bulbs even if the soil is still warm and let Mother Nature cool the soil down as fall progresses.

So When Should You Plant Bulbs?

It’s always best to plant bulbs a few weeks before the soil starts to freeze, as hardy bulbs need to start producing their roots in the fall. You don’t want the ground freezing to any great depth before they’re well rooted. In most climates, that means any time between late April/early June (the beginning of the bulbs’ dormancy, depending on the variety and climate) and mid-November.

(There are a few bulbs that should be planted as soon as they arrive in stores: read more about them in the article 4 Bulbs That Require Early Planting.)

So there you go! There is actually a vast window of opportunity—over half a year!—for you to plant spring-flowering bulbs, but the reality is that they only come on sale in September in most areas, so plant them then or wait a month or two: it really doesn’t matter, as you long as get them into the ground before it freezes. And just leave bulbs of previous years in the ground year after year: it’s their natural environment and that’s where they do best!

Article originally published on October 7, 2017.

Thanks to Barry Langille suggesting this article!

2 comments on “Why Do We Plant Spring Bulbs in the Fall?

  1. Thanks so much for this information. I always pass up on bulb sales that occur too early or too late compared to my normal bulb planting time. My local farmers market always has clearance sales on left over bulbs and in the future I’m going to take advantage of these sales. You’re right, they are better in the ground than stored in a shed. An even if planted early, they’ll still come up next spring.

  2. Makes sense. I some enormous daffodil bulbs that grew in a Spring pot just sitting on my potting bench waiting for cooler temps. Wish I had planted them earlier. Digging holes amongst giant perennials at this time of year is a bit of a pain.

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