When to Plant Tulips
Question from Terry:
Hi! My mom just came back from Europe. She had a layover in Amsterdam and thought that it would be a great idea to bring me some tulip bulbs. Help! She brought me 2 dozen and I don’t know what to do with them. I know that you are supposed to refrigerate them in the fall and plant them in December. Should I put these in the refrigerator until then? My mom says that the person she bought them from said to plant them now. I live in South Orange County (Trabuco Canyon/Rancho Santa Margarita area).
Answer from Pat:
All gardeners know that such things as the time of year, the length of days, and the night and day temperature are inherent parts of gardening. Non-gardeners, however, (and your mother may be one of these) may be totally unaware of these aspects of the garden year or how they affect plants. In Mediterranean climates such as ours, we grow plants year round and have blooms year round, but to every flower there is a season. This is especially true of spring-flowering bulbs such as tulips, that can only be grown here when planted in fall, grown in winter, and brought to bloom in spring.
Also, as you know, tulips need a cold winter. Thus they will not bloom in mild-winter climates such as ours unless pre-chilled in the refrigerator for six weeks prior to planting them out in the garden in late fall or early winter. Thus, to put it frankly, it is impossible to plant tulip bulbs here now in spring when the weather is warming up and have them come to bloom. They may grow a few leaves but probably not even that, since these tulip bulbs were harvested last year and have been lying around in the Amsterdam airport ever since. The only sensible thing to do with those bulbs is to throw them out. You could of course try chilling them for a month and then planting them but this would be a waste of time since the day-length and temperature would be incorrect. Also, it would be a waste of refrigerator space to keep them in cold-storage until fall since by then they will have spoiled. (I tried this once years ago when someone brought me a box of bulbs at the wrong time of year and it did not work.) It is probably best to write your mother a note thanking her profusely for her kind thought, since she meant so well, then quietly throw the bulbs out and hope that she forgets about them. If she ever asks about the bulbs, show her this answer to your question and blame me!
Now here is an interesting thought: If you happened to live in a Mediterranean climate like ours but south of the equator you could have planted these bulbs and they might have bloomed. For example, if you lived in South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand, since it is fall there, you might have a chance of growing them by first chilling them for 6 weeks in the refrigerator to fool them into thinking they’d gone through a cold winter and then planting them. This must be why they are still for sale in Holland at the wrong time of year for us. In Holland, also, they have amazing Climatrons where, for the international cut-flower trade, they control day-length and temperature in order to fool plants into growing and blooming at the incorrect times of year. Quite frequently they do this with tulips so that they can sell the blooms over a much longer season than would normally be possible. Nonetheless, the salesperson in Amsterdam should have known that tulips will come to naught in California if planted after December or January and as you pointed out they would need to be chilled for six weeks prior to planting which would set the time for purchasing them back even further.