When to Plant Flower Bulbs

Written by Mike Edmisten
Updated: March 14, 2023
© Jurga Jot/Shutterstock.com
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We all love those wonderful spring flowers. They remind us that a cold, dreary winter is over, and warm, sunny days are on the way. But if you want a spectacular display of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other spring favorites in your garden, you must plan ahead. 

It begins with bulb selection. Look for bulbs that are firm, not soft or squishy. If there is any sign of mold or rot, discard the bulb. Healthy bulbs will be free of discoloration, soft spots, or cracks. And, generally speaking, larger bulbs have stored more nutrients and will yield better results.

Once you have chosen your bulbs, that leads to the next critically important question: when should you plant them? That depends on a variety of factors.

Let’s break it down so you can plant your bulbs at just the right time to produce a spring garden that will be the envy of your neighborhood.

Healthy tulip bulbs are large and free of discoloration.
Healthy tulip bulbs that are large and free of discoloration.

©Natallia Ustsinava/Shutterstock.com

Planting Bulbs in Different Zones

Most bulbs should be planted 6-8 weeks before the soil starts to freeze. Timing that out depends on the growing zone where you reside.

In the coldest growing areas, Zones 1-3, bulbs should be planted as early as late August and early September.

In Zones 4-5, you should plant your bulbs in mid to late October.

If you live in Zones 6-8, wait until November to put bulbs in the ground.

If you live in Zone 9 and above, you will likely need to chill your bulbs before planting.

Many bulb flowers, like crocuses, daffodils, and tulips, need an extended cold stratification period to break out of dormancy. If they don’t go through this chilling period, they may grow with shorter stems and malformed blooms, or they simply may not grow at all.

Bulbs can receive this chilling period naturally in colder growing zones, but in warmer areas, they need some help.

You can pre-chill your bulbs in a refrigerator if you reside in these warmer zones. Generally speaking, you should start chilling the bulbs in October.

When chilling bulbs, make sure there is no fruit in the same fridge. Ripening fruit emits ethylene gas that can damage the developing flowers inside the bulbs.

You also want to be sure that air can circulate around the bulbs. Place the bulbs in ventilated bags or boxes. Don’t seal them up in plastic bags because that could cause the bulbs to hold moisture and rot.

Crocuses in snow
Crocuses in snow.

©Volkova Irina/Shutterstock.com

Chilling Times for Different Bulbs

Whether in a refrigerator or in the ground, most bulbs need to be chilled for 12-15 weeks at 35-45°F.

Here are the recommended chill times for some of the most popular bulbs.

  • Crocus: 15 weeks
  • Hyacinth: 12-15 weeks
  • Daffodils: 16 weeks
  • Tulips: 10-14 weeks
Hands holding tulip bulbs before planting
Hands holding tulip bulbs before planting.


Late to the Party?

Sometimes we get busy. Sometimes we forget. Life is messy like that. So what if you missed your window for planting your bulbs? There may still be time.

Flower bulbs are generally pretty hardy and can be forgiving if we don’t follow their ideal schedule.

As a general rule, if your area hasn’t experienced its first freeze and the ground isn’t waterlogged, you can probably still plant your bulbs.

This means you could *possibly* plant your bulbs in late December. Maybe even January, depending on where you live. 

Once there is a hard freeze, though, the planting window is likely closed for the year.

Fallen leaf covered with hoarfrost and snow
Once there is a hard freeze, the planting window is likely closed for the year.


Bulbs Planted. Now What?

Once the bulbs are in the ground, there are some things to keep in mind to ensure a splendid spring bloom.

First of all, there are critters that would love to dig up your newly planted bulbs and have a snack. So, if there are chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, deer, and voles around your garden, you should strongly consider putting down some repellant after planting your bulbs. 

Your bulbs need consistently cool temperature levels through the winter, so mulching can be a big help. Mulch also inhibits weed growth and slowly releases organic material into the soil that is beneficial for your bulbs.

You won’t need to water your bulbs unless it is a particularly dry autumn. This is because the soil needs adequate moisture before the first freeze for bulbs to thrive. Don’t waterlog the soil, though. In seasons with average precipitation, you probably won’t need to water much, if at all.

Follow these simple guidelines in the fall, and you’ll thank yourself in the spring when you are basking in your garden’s beautiful blooms!

Large flower bed with multi-colored hyacinths
Large flower bed with multi-colored hyacinths.

©Kateryna Mashkevych/Shutterstock.com

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Tulip bulbs, garden spade, and rake
Tulip bulbs, garden spade, and rake
© Jurga Jot/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

A freelance writer in Cincinnati, OH, Mike is passionate about the natural world. He, his wife, and their two sons love the outdoors, especially camping and exploring US National Parks. A former pastor, he also writes faith-based content to encourage and inspire. And, for reasons inexplicable, Mike allows Cincinnati sports teams to break his heart every year.

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