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Short-flowering bulbs got you down?


As you probably know, I live in the land of the delayed spring. So when I started getting questions from a couple people asking about why their tulips and other bulbs were short I didn’t think much of it. Maybe they planted them too deep or had something funky going on with the bulbs they purchased.

And then more people reported the same thing, and all of them reported planting them more or less at the proper depth. 

Since I have nothing blooming here yet (still waiting for my one early daffodil to do its thing) so I have nothing to report on my personal experience, but it seemed clear to me that something was going on. And what affects fall-planted bulb performance more than any other factor? Temperature.

This photo by Moya of the YouTube channel Garden Addictz shows a bed of tulips that are all much shorter than they should be.

So I reached out to the folks at Longfield Gardens, which sells oodles of bulbs (and other plants) and sent me some great bulbs last fall (which I’ll report to you on probably sometime around July at this rate). 

And it turns out my first inkling of a thought on it was on the right track. 

Here’s what Kathleen Liberte of Longfield told me: “When spring-blooming flower bulbs are planted (in the fall), the embryonic flowers inside the bulb are not fully developed. It takes a certain amount and duration of cold to initiate the maturation process.”

So when you have a mild winter, as many did this year, you may end up with immature flowers, which can present as shorter or smaller than they should be. 

Daffodils can also be affected by inadequate chilling hours and temperature.

But that’s not the worst bit. As things get generally warmer, gardeners who used to have no problem with fall-planted bulbs may now have to pre-chill bulbs because there’s no guarantee that they’ll get the chilling hours they’ll need for them to mature properly.

Zone 7 is about where you would normally be able to plant bulbs in fall without worrying, but in zone 8 you need to pre-chill bulbs (here’s an article on how to do that). So if you have a warm winter in zone 7 or your climate is warming to more of a zone 8, you might have to approach bulbs differently than you have in the past. 

And because of the requirement for a certain temperature for a particular length of time, you might be seeing short bulbs even if you live in a colder zone but had a mild winter. Gardening: It’s always a learning experience.


21 Responses

  1. Having a similar experience with floppy leaves and few blooms. I never mulch so it must have been the mild winter. My tulips have been perfect every year till now. No guarantees in gardening.

  2. Thanks for this. My two year old tulips that bloomed beautifully their first year (last year) are nothing but spindly leaves with no blooms. I live in Zone 5, Upstate New York, and we had a fairly mild winter. The information you provided explains it all! Thank you so much.

    1. I am having issues with my tulips this year too. Mostly I just have leaves and no blooms. The leaves have already flopped over and laying on the ground. I was wondering if some of them that are doing this are not planted at the correct depth anymore. I was thinking because all the years I have mulched my flower beds…..wouldn’t that continue to make my bulbs deeper and deeper into the ground or does that not matter? Or my other thought was because I have so many leaves and very few blooms, does that mean they are getting too much nitrogen and not enough phosphorus. Your thoughts? Maybe I should fertilize them with bulb tone?

  3. I’m in Zone 9b. 10+ this year. This is my first year planting bulbs. Some short. Some tall. Some not at all. I planted all of them in pots. I’m treating them as annual. I had great results for a first time in my opinion. Next year I will put them in the fridge before I plant. Thanks for the info.???

  4. The bulbs I pre-chilled for containers turned out great. The ones planted in-ground…not so great.

    Clark zone 7a

  5. Thanks for that explanation Erin. I garden in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies in zone 4 and we are never at a loss for cold, cold winters. In fact, we still have plenty of snow on the ground. But, I am able to enjoy a few tulips early because they are planted near the foundation on the west side of our house. I don’t have the deer to contend with like you do, but my favourite spring bulb is still a daffodil – Thalia, in particular. She is a beauty! Thank you so much for your posts. I am new to your blog and videos and am enjoying them very much!! Stay safe and healthy and I can’t wait to see what you do in your front garden by the road and your driveway!

  6. Thank you Erin for the information. I live in zone 5 and I’m committed to buy and plant bulbs this coming fall. I want more color!????

  7. Thank you for the information. Mine are all normal here in central Ohio. Even with a mild winter, we most likely had sufficient cold.

  8. Thanks for the explanation, we moved to NC, zone 7. We had a warm winter (wore shorts n t-shirts), out of 20 bulbs, only four popped up. Surprise though, all irises bloomed. Mzybe better luck next year…

  9. I live in zone 8 and have never chilled my bulbs before planting. This year they are shorter and not as prolific. I atributed it to too much rain but it is probably due to a warm winter.

  10. I live in zone 8 and have never had a problem with spring bulbs blooming very short or not at all!!!! Until this year…I am so disappointed this year. I planted around 200 bulbs and only around 30 bloomed. I have been gardening for decades and this has never happened before. So glad I read your post. I was blaming the bulb grower…sorry. ?

  11. I live in zone 3 Airdrie Alberta
    No bulbs have come out yet
    Still snow on the ground and more to come
    Amanda v

    1. I’m in zone 3B in central Ontario. Still some bits of snow banks left to melt, but daffodils close to the house are poking through. So too the crocuses. Tulips don’t come here until mid May.

  12. Thanks Erin. I live in zone 9 so I always have to chill my spring bulbs. Next year I’ll be moving to a zone 6b so I’m gathering info to make that change.

    1. I am in 9b I 2023 we had lots of freezing days so that should not be my issue. My neighbors across the street have tall tulips but were not new bulbs but annual pop ups. If anything we had soo much rain and some hot and cold days in between that could be a factor but again across the streets look amazing. Mine are pretty just no one can see them out of the box. Aoo sad.

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