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Fall Bulb FAQs

Q. Why can't I plant tulips in the Spring?

A. Spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips and daffodils must be planted in the fall or early winter to bloom in spring because they require a long period of cool temperatures to spark the biochemical process that causes them to flower. In fall, it's important to get them into the ground before the ground freezes. They need time to develop strong roots. Although spring-blooming bulbs can only be planted in the fall they can be ordered now for fall shipment.

Q. It's February and I just found a bag of bulbs that I forgot to plant. Do I save them till next year?

A. No! If they are still firm and plump, plant them now. Bulbs are living plants, and they cannot wait, they will dry out. Either chill them in the refrigerator for use indoors as forced bulbs or somehow get them into the ground outside. Because they are so tough and contain a full storehouse of food, your bulbs will try their best to bloom no matter how late it is in the season. This is a case of "nothing ventured, nothing gained." Chances are you may still get some results, even if you plant them late.

Q. Spring weather is often so erratic. What should I do if we get warm weather followed by a cold snap and my bulbs are already up?

A. Nothing. Tulips and other spring-flowering bulbs are tough. They can usually take what Mother Nature dishes out. When the weather turns, don't dash outside to cover early-sprouting bulbs with extra weather protection. A short freeze won't do lasting damage to young bulb shoots and buds, though it may "burn" already open blossoms. Many, such as snowdrops, crocuses, and early rock garden narcissi are supposed to come up in very early spring, even peeking through the snow. Mother Nature has provided them with the means to survive. An unseasonably warm spell may cause some bulbs to bloom earlier than anticipated, but in most cases won't result in damage.

Q. Where can I buy the rare black tulip?

A. We have it — Queen of the Night. But actually, black tulips are not rare — black tulips do not exist! What do exist are some very, very deep purple tulips, some of which appear almost black. The search for the fabled black tulip has been an epic quest for centuries.

In 1850 Alexander Dumas, famed French author of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, captured the popular fancy with The Black Tulip (now with Oxford University Press), a romantic tale in which a fictional black tulip figures in a love story laced with murder, torture, greed, dastardly intrigue, and sudden surprises.

Today, the lure of a black tulip still attracts. Dutch hybridizers have achieved some very, very deep purples. 'Queen of Night', for example, is officially listed as "deep velvety maroon" and is very, very dark in color. But achieving a true black tulip, say the experts, is not possible (yet still worth the try!).

Q. How do I grow spring-flowering bulbs in warm climates?

A. It's possible to grow spring-flowering bulbs in climates as warm as Zone 9 and Zone 10. However the blooming season in these zones is much earlier than in cooler zones. Some spring-flowering bulbs recommended for Zone 9 can be planted with no pre-cooling. Others will need a special cold treatment before planting.

No pre-chilling needed: Amaryllis, Allium neapolitanum, Allium rosenbachianum, Anemone de Caen and Anemone St. Brigid, Brodiaea laxa, Crocus chrysanthus (snow crocus), Dutch iris, Freesia, Ixias, Lilies, all Narcissi/Daffodils, Ornithogalum umbellatum, Ranunculus, Scilla campanulata (wood hyacinth), Sparaxis, Triteleia uniflora and Tritoni.

Pre-chilling needed: tulips, hyacinths, crocus and the other spring-flowering bulb favorites.

Here are some warm winter gardening tips:

  • First, choose cultivars which have proved to do well in warmer climates. Cold-hardy bulbs that need pre-cooling in warm winter regions must be treated as annuals and new bulbs must be planted the following fall.
  • Pre-chill the bulbs for a minimum of six to eight weeks in a refrigerator at a temperature of around 40°F to 45°F (the temperature of most home refrigerators). If you use a refrigerator, be sure not to store any apples or other fruits alongside your bulbs. Ripening fruit naturally gives off ethylene gas which will kill the flower inside the bulbs.
  • Don't worry if you bought the bulbs early in the season and need to store them for several months before planting. Keep them chilling — even up to 16 weeks if necessary, until it is time to plant. Optimally, the bulbs should be put in the ground in December or early January.
  • Plant tulips about 6 to 8 inches deep, water well and protect with a layer of mulch to retain moisture and protect from heat. When bulbs do not receive sufficient weeks of cold treatment, they bloom too close to the ground, on too-short stems.

Q. What should I do after tulips fade in spring? What about daffodils?

A. After tulip flowers have faded, "dead-head" them by clipping off the faded blooms so that they won't go to seed. Narcissi (daffodils) do not require dead-heading, just leave as is. The main requirement for bulb flowers in the post-bloom period is to leave the leaves alone so the plant can put its energy into "recharging" its bulb for next spring's performance. This "energy charge" is gained through photosynthesis as the plant uses the sun's energy to turn basic elements such as oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium into food. This food is stored in the bulb's "scales," the white fleshy part of the bulb, for use next spring.

It is necessary to leave the green foliage exposed to the sun until it turns brown or six weeks have elapsed since blooming. Fight the urge to trim back or constrain the leaves during their die-back phase after blooming. Don't bunch, tie, braid or cut bulb plant leaves during this period. Dealing with the fading foliage is basically one of those things that lovers of spring bulbs must deal with. The only management tip is camouflage.

Try interplanting bulbs with annuals or perennials, or planting them strategically nearby so that the latter mask the declining bulb foliage as best as possible. As a planting strategy, plant clumps of bulbs instead of full beds. This way you will have a lovely spring show, and plenty of room to plant camouflaging companions.

Avoid fertilizing the annuals planted in the same bed until the bulbs have died back. Bulbs in spring, if they're fertilized at all, should only get a dose of fast-release nitrogen about six weeks before flowering (normally bulbs want a low nitrogen mix, but in spring it is the green-encouraging nitrogen that is called for). Fertilizing bulbs too close to flowering time, when the bulbs can't metabolize the food, only encourages fusarium disease and other nasty things.

Q. My tulips don't do well at all the second season of bloom. I've been told that lifting the bulbs, storing them for the summer and replanting them in the fall will improve their performance. Is this true?

A. This old-fashioned method is difficult, yields mediocre results and is generally a lot of bother. It is better to look for those tulips with a natural propensity for repeat performance. Botanical or species varieties and their hybridized strains are generally excellent garden performers and sometimes will even naturalize. You'll see we have several selections of 'wild tulips' in our listing. These are the originals … and while smaller than the big hybrids, they are truly perennial.

Among hybrids, try the Emperor Tulips and, of course, the Darwin Hybrids. They are the best for coming back for several years.

When "perennializing" or naturalizing tulips, plant them about 8 inches deep and choose a well-drained spot in the yard.

Q. Is it better to plant bulbs earlier or later in the fall?

A. Planting times vary depending on your climate zone, but as a general rule earlier is better. If your ground typically freezes in the winter, you want to plant the bulbs at least six weeks before this happens. If your ground typically does not freeze, you will need to pre-chill your bulbs for 6-10 weeks before planting.

Q. I've been told that the bigger the tulip bulb, the better the flower. Is this true?

A. Not entirely. It is true, however, that, as a general rule, the bigger the tulip bulb the bigger the flower. But bigger does not necessarily mean better. The bulbs of a species tulip such as Tulipa tarda, for example, would appear quite tiny beside, say, a large Darwin Hybrid bulb such as 'Apeldoorn'. But these small species tulip are some of the most delicate and lovely bulb flowers you can grow. They're quite hardy as well. Tulip bulbs are sold by caliber or size. Within any particular type or variety of tulip, the larger bulbs will fetch a higher price than the smaller ones. For big showy displays, the larger caliber bulbs are certainly worth the price. However, some excellent bargains are to be had by buying lots of smaller caliber bulbs for brightening up a marginal spot in the spring yard.

Q. Do tulips prefer a sunny or a shady spot in the yard?

A. Tulips are sun as well as shade lovers. But when planting your tulips this fall, don't be fooled by the patterns of sun and shade in the fall garden! Remember that come spring, when tulips bloom, all the deciduous, non-evergreen trees in your yard will be beautifully leafless. There's a lot of sun in a spring garden!

Q. What are "botanical" or "species" tulips?

A. Species tulips, or "wild tulips" are those varieties which have not been bred or hybridized and remain essentially as they are found in nature. Botanical tulips are hybrids, but hybrids which remain very close to the original species. None of the bulbs we sell are truly wild, or gathered in the wild, since all tulips sold by the Dutch, including the species and botanical tulips, are actually propagated and grown in Holland. Species and botanical tulips are generally smaller than othertulips. They are especially prized for growing in rock gardens.