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Wintertime Choices for Spring Bulb Procrastinators


Q. Help! I bought 100 daffodil bulbs, but only got 60 planted. What do I do (besides not ordering so many bulbs NEXT year)? Can I save the remaining 40 bulbs? If I plant them outdoors in early Spring, will they will bloom later that spring? Do I store them in a refrigerator in the meantime?

---Carol in Glenmoore, PA

I just picked up a bunch of fall bulbs from a garden center that was going to throw them out. The ground is too hard to plant them now. Can I put them in the freezer until next fall? Or should I plant them in pots filled with a sterile mix for summer bloom?

---Dick in Medford Lakes

I read an article in my local newspaper that said it's ok to keep bulbs like tulips and daffodils in the freezer over the winter and plant them outside in the spring. What do you think about this? Thanks for your advice!

---Kristine in Reading, PA

A. I think that putting 'naked' bulbs—or even bulbs in pots—into a freezer would be a very bad idea. That so-called 'garden writer' should have his or her hand smacked with an ornamental allium!

As our resident bulb expert Art Wolk, winner of countless Philadelphia Flower Show blue ribbons and author of "Bulb Forcing for the Beginner and Seriously Smitten" has explained many times, you have to adhere to a very tight temperature range when trying to trick Spring bulbs into believing that they're really outside in the ground. The ideal range, says Art, is 40 to 50 degrees F.—quite a distance from the zero F. that most freezers are set for.

Now, this basic question—"what do I do with the Spring bulbs I should have planted outside between Halloween and Thanksgiving now that it's after New Year's?"—is a very common one, and Art's basic answer is generally to try and plant them outside anyway. Says Artski: "If the ground isn't frozen solid, it's much easier to try and get them to bloom by planting them directly in the garden. Yes, even this late in the game. With any luck, they should flower just a bit behind fall-planted bulbs. I occasionally have leftover daffodils and tulips that I've planted directly in the garden (not in pots) as late as January 20th, and they've bloomed just fine."

But what about pots, Art? As I mentioned on the show last fall, I deliberately planted five pots of bulbs in a soil free mix and perlite, saturated them really well with water, let them drain and then put them in a 'beer fridge' we have in the basement that stays right around 45 degrees. I even dated them and specified the varieties, so I would know when they had chilled long enough (10 weeks for little bulbs like crocus; 12 to 14 weeks for tulips and daffs). I didn't 'need' to do this—I've got plenty of outdoor space, but 1) it seemed like a fun thing to try; and 2) It would at least delay the inevitable Evil Squirrel attack on the poor plants.

My plan is to bring some of the pots into bright light indoors when their chilling time has been achieved and display them that way, and to take the others outside to a prominent location when the correct number of weeks has gone by. If I get the timing and temperature right, I expect them to behave like bulbs that were buried outdoors and bloom nicely for me.

"The only disadvantage of potting up and chilling forgotten bulbs", says Art, "is the extra time and effort it takes. You have to have enough pots, enough soil-free mix, and the proper place to give them that all-important 40-50 degrees for root formation and flower-stem extension."

He adds that if you have the pots and the mix, but not an extra fruit-free fridge (you can't force bulbs in a fridge where fruits will also be stored), you can bury the pots outside with the lip of the pot flush with the soil line. (I like this idea; it's much easier to dig one big hole in cold-to-frozen soil than a couple dozen little ones!) When Spring arrives, you can just leave them there in the ground or move the pots to a more visible area for better display right before the flowers open up.

So—just how late in the game can you do this kind of thing, Art? Say you notice you have unplanted bulbs in, say, April? Can you pot them up, chill them down and have tulips blooming in July?

"Not outdoors," he assures us. "The summer heat in most regions would prevent the flowers from emerging -- a condition known as 'blindness'. Or, if they somehow managed to emerge, the bud wouldn't develop into a good blossom -- a condition known as bud blast."

So get going, all you bulb procrastinators! It sounds like once you pass a certain point in the season, an old bulb is good for the compost pile and nothing else.

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