Forcing bulbs in warmer climates

Many of my clients love tulips and want them planted in their gardens to enjoy for years to come. 

They hand me catalogs filled with ear-marked pages of the tulips they want: frilly parrots, fancy long-stemmed varieties, or carefully selected color palettes to place throughout their garden.

Unfortunately, I have to be the bearer of bad news and inform them that these beauties rarely return the following year (due to our mild climate) and might be best considered as annuals, after first refrigerating them for several weeks.

Once they adjust their expectations, though, they’re usually fine with this alternative.  After all, there’s something deeply gratifying – almost hopeful – about planting a bulb in the winter, as a reminder that spring will soon arrive. 

Why do we need to chill our bulbs? 

For those of us who live in California (or other Sun Belt states), we don’t have the necessary winter chill that most tulip bulbs require.  Tulips require a long period of time where soil temperatures remain at a minimum of 45 degrees. 

Since temperatures in my region don’t meet this chilling requirement, tulips are unlikely to re-bloom.  Without chilling, they may flower the first year, but by the second year they tend to look nothing remotely similar to their description in the catalog.

Luckily, forcing dormancy is simple:  just place them in the refrigerator for at least 6-8 weeks.  Shoot for a goal of planting them in the ground in January, which would give them plenty of time to grow and flower in the spring, before hot temperatures of summer arrive to put an end to their show. 

This means you need to buy your bulbs in the fall and have them in the refrigerator by mid-December at the latest. 

Place the bulbs in a brown paper bag, or keep them in the bags they come in, and don’t let them get wet – otherwise they’ll mildew, and won’t bloom.  The mini-fridge in my garage houses several bulbs for about 10 weeks each year (it took awhile, but my family is used to it by now!)

Note:  It’s very important you do not store the bulbs in the same refrigerator as your fruit!  Big mistake!  Apples and other fruits give off ethylene gas as a natural part of ripening, and this gas is bad for bulbs.

Another Note: If you live in warmer climates, and you don’t want to go through the effort of forcing bulbs, there ARE bulbs that thrive with no winter chilling!  They’re not the long-stemmed varieties or the frilly parrot tulips, but they’re beautiful nonetheless and over time they’ll naturalize into charming colonies that welcome spring’s arrival.  These are T. clusiana (Lady Tulips), T. saxatilis (Candia Tulips) and T. sylvestris (Florentine Tulips).

How to plant tulips

Many of us have seen gardens with tulips that are all lined up in a row like little soldiers.  I prefer a more naturalistic planting by laying the bulbs out in an informal mass, with curves and asymmetrical shapes. 

Some gardeners throw huge handfuls of bulbs into their garden beds and wherever they land, that’s where they’re planted. 

Plant the bulbs 4-6 inches below the soil, with their roots or basal plates facing down. I always amend each hole with a handful of good quality, organic bulb fertilizer.  Water when finished, and add mulch to retain the soil’s coolness.

In the spring, make sure the bulbs are receiving regular water, and perhaps feed them a few times with diluted liquid fertilizer while they’re growing.  A low nitrogen fertilizer is best, so most of the energy isn’t  going to the leaves, resulting in rapid leaf growth at the expense of flowers (look for a 9-9-6 analysis on the package.)

After the flowers have disappeared, do NOT cut down the foliage as the leaves are busy storing energy from the sun for next year’s growth.   Understandably, lots of people hate looking at the messy clump of leaves.  If that’s the case with you, then place a low-growing mounding shrub or fast growing annual in front of the bulbs to hide the shriveling leaves. 

You can also use a plant support, such as the one above, to lightly pin the leaves to the ground, creating a tidier look (especially in the wind.)  Once the leaves have shriveled and turned yellow, you can gently dig up the bulb and set it in a cool, shady spot for the rest of the summer.  Come fall, refrigerate it and start over again!  You’ll get at least a few year’s worth of blooms by doing this.

For those clients who think this is too much of a hassle, I recommend planting your chilled bulbs in a container and setting it out of the way for the winter. 

When spring arrives, just move the pot to your patio or near your front door to enjoy for several weeks.  When finished blooming, you can compost the bulbs and start fresh with a new batch of bulbs in the fall.

Or, you can do what I do and find some lucky soul who lives in a colder climate to whom you can donate your bulbs.   My mother lives in an area that gets sufficient winter chill, and is the lucky recipient of all of my container bulbs – and I get to see them happily blooming year after year in her garden. 

A win-win!

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