Breaking the Rules: Bulbs

This is the first post in my new series called Breaking the Rules, in which I'll be looking at some of the gardening advice available to see if it can be bent or even completely broken. I'm not an expert, but I know there's some advice I followed at first, then found doesn't need following slavishly.

First up are spring flowering bulbs.

The picture shows a packet of tulips last Saturday. You may have come across something similar recently going for a song at your local DIY store or garden centre. Did you buy them too? I hope so. According to the advice, I should have planted them last December at the latest. But there's nothing wrong with these tulips. The bulbs aren't soft and soggy or mouldy, the sprouted tips are showing a relatively healthy colour and they aren't long and straggly. Planted now, they should still do well, though they'll probably flower a couple of weeks later than if I'd planted them at the 'right' time.

Why can I get away with planting them late?

The key to success is to select firm bulbs with no traces of mould. I did have one shrivelled up bulb in my pack (which I've since composted), but seeing I only paid 10p for them, that's not bad. Tulips don't start to root until the weather gets colder, so if we have plenty of that to come (and Saturday was pretty chilly!), my bulbs should still perform well.

As we've had so much rain lately and I garden on clay, I decided to plant them into some large black plastic pots. Tulips don't like their feet in water, so I don't currently have the right conditions for them in my garden. I've previously found they don't particularly like soiless compost either because it can dry out, so I used a 50:50 mix of that plus the last of some John Innes number 3 I had to hand.

The pots are now on the patio, just outside the kitchen doors. They might stay there to brighten up the view come April, or I may decide to move them into a garden border later, to help plug a gap.

I've previously had some success planting daffodils at this time of the year, which is even later than advised! I believe like these tulips, the keys to success are ensuring the bulbs are still sound, using a good quality compost and having some luck with the weather. I've found a cold spell is definitely needed for either daffodils or tulips to thrive. I've yet to see whether I can plant late and then get them to come back every year, but when a pack is a late winter bargain, that doesn't really matter.

Whether this rule bending can be applied to bulbs planted at other times remains to be seen...

I see I'm in good company as James Alexander-Sinclair has also owned up to planting some of his tulips late this year. So grab that bargain (or bag you'd forgotten about) and get planting now :)

Update: Helen Gazeley has kindly been in touch with her posts on what happened when she planted tulips and daffodils in March. Unlike me, she had disappointing results (though the tulips did come up fine the following year), probably because March is just a tad too late and too warm for bending this rule.

Conclusion: A rule which can be bent if timing and the right conditions allow, but it can't be completely broken.

Have you successfully bent or broken a gardening rule? Tell me about it in the comments below...


  1. I am of the same school of thought i.e. that it is worth a try. If they are planted and missed flowering this year, the chances are that next year you will get flowers.

    I think there is something rewarding about growing and giving plants a chance when others might not have tried.

  2. Hi 2uesday - most definitely. I also potted up a packet of paperwhite bulbs I must have missed before Christmas and they're beginning to green up nicely. In previous years, I've also planted autumn onion sets which I've found in the sales. They did crop a bit later, which defeats the object somewhat, but again they were 10p so that doesn't matter!

  3. Thought you might be interested in what happened when I planted tulips and daffodils too late: and
    They both went in in March, so it'll be interesting to see if the extra month gives yours enough of a boost to be normal. I suspect it will.

  4. I'm sure you're right, Michelle (ref. comment over at Weeding the Web). There must come a point when the plant is stimulated into leaf (or flower) production by the conditions, rather than starting at the beginning with roots.

  5. Hi Helen - thanks for providing such useful information to add to the debate on this rule :) It's interesting to see your tulips had plenty of leaves. I'm thinking March's warmth and light stimulated leaf growth over laying down roots first. It's also interesting to see that your tulips came up fine the following year, which suggests all those leaves meant the bulb could store sufficient energy for the next year. I wonder if the same happened for your daffodils the next year?

    So the conclusion is we can bend this rule but not totally break it! Of course I'm still running a risk with my February planting. If my bulbs don't have enough of a cold spell, then I'm sure they'll suffer the same fate as your March planted ones. Cold weather is forecast for later this week, thank goodness.

  6. Thanks for adding in my two penn'orth. Interesting point about the daffodils. I forgot to look. There are quite a few in the garden, so it's not as easy as with the tulips to spot whether they came up OK the next year. I didn't notice any gaps, but that's hardly a scientific conclusion...

  7. We've all been in this situation. Fall can be a busy season, and things get missed. Keep us posted, and good luck.

  8. Helen G - you're welcome and thank you - this post is so much better as a result and your points made me realise a short conclusion concerning the rule under discussion was also needed :)

    Helen - that's just it. Things get so busy and then we feel guilty about not getting everything done. I hope this series will show that we don't have to tie ourselves in knots over not getting things done at the 'right' time.

  9. I have also planted tulip and crocus bulbs way too late, but it is knowing HOW to break the rules, that's the key - and a bit of courage, it doesn't always work! But if youy buy cheap bulbs late at least you haven't spent a fortune :-)

  10. I'd like to add my tuppence worth too :) - I did this last year with bargain tulips bulbs and yes they flowered, albeit a few weeks later.
    I also found another bag of tulip bulbs I bought in October, which was forgotten about in the bottom of a bag in the cupboard - 3 weeks ago. They look exactly like yours and I've potted those up too!
    We can all learn together on this one.
    TBH - I'm one of those gardeners that often do things when I shouldn't and I'm either one of the luckiest gardeners around or although the advice given is for 'optimum' results, maybe there is a bit of give and take!
    I think I'm going to enjoy this 'break the rules' theme :)
    The rule I've broken this week, not sure if it's a rule or not, I lifted and divided a Heuchera. Autumn is recommended time but as the plant was looking so bad - I decided I had nothing to loose!

  11. I suspect I break many gardening rules as I follow the Christopher Lloyd maxim of doing something when I think of it rather than when the book prescribes.
    Having seen evidence of pruning roses with hedge trimmers which was very successful and other 'bad' pruning I have come to the conclusion that many gardening 'rules' related to when the head gardener wanted to schedule things rather than anything else. Obviously, you need to take into account dormancy etc etc. I also think there is an element of mystique which has been created around these so called rules which is just rubbish and makes newbie gardeners nervous of doing something wrong and discourages them. Gardening and horticulture for an amateur in particular should be fun, about experimenting and following your instincts not slavishly following some rules written by the Victorians. Just my view:)

  12. I have a little stash of bulbs which I dug up to re-plant when I was thinking I was making a lawn. (Operations suspended due to weather!) They too are heading to be late planted. Trouble is, I don't want any more pots and the ground is water solid. It will be hit and miss but, whatever I do with them, it'll be better than leaving them in a colander in the shed.

  13. Yes, I break the rules, but that is generally because I don't always know what I am doing!! It's a good way to learn and gives other people a laugh or an 'oh dear, she's at it again'.

  14. Better to plant them late and get now blooms until next year than to let them dry up and die, I always say. I was given a bunch of amaryllis bulbs once way out of season. I planted them anyway, and they did fine.

  15. Haha! I love it! Rules are made to be broken right?! I hope you have success with your tulips and even if you don't they should come up next year so nothing is lost. Everything is gained. I break loads of rules all the time and when I first started out it was usually with planting things too late. They usually catch up. Fingers crossed for the tulips : )

  16. Thank you so much for this post! I bought lots of tulip bulbs in the autumn but only got round to planting a few of them. I've been feeling really bad about wasting all that money, but you prompted me to peer into the bag, and apart from a few mouldy ones, they were mostly fine! I wouldn't have known to put them out in the cold, either; I'd have been worried about shocking them with the temperature change. All my tulip bulbs are now in pots on the patio :-)

  17. Yes good one :-) I don't think I've ever planted my tulip bulbs before the New Year - as December's a lunatic time for most people, but let alone if you have kids! I've always waited for the 'sales', but I'm so into to tulips now, that often I can't get the ones I really love that way (think I must be a bit 'mainstream!!) That said, they're often languishing in the garage until January and even then they tend to get planted in phases - when weather and light allow. I reckon as long as you have them all in by February mid-term, you won't notice the difference at all.

  18. Christopher Lloyd used to say that you could plant tulip bulbs in January and we are only just out of Jan. so if it was good enough for him I would say its good enough for anyone !!

  19. Gardening isn't an exact science is it?

  20. Helene - that's one of the things I'll be trying to do with this series. Too much gardening advice doesn't explain why its given. I believe that if you understand why, it also helps to apply it, even if that means changing the advice to suit your conditions.

    Angie - plants are much more flexible than many of us realise. There's so many other factors to consider too - soil, aspect, what the weather's doing etc. All of this means that the 'rules' can be bent much more than we realise.

    Helen - I thought this would resonate with you :) I think many newbie gardeners welcome the rules as it gives them a starting point. However, we soon find out they're just that: a starting point to which we then apply our own garden's conditions and our own experience. Also research or events come along which can turn a rule completely on its head. Tony Kirkham last year spoke how what happened after the 'great hurricane' changed the way they care for trees at Kew. I'm reading a really interesting book at the moment which looks at the most popular gardening advice and rates them as good, not sure and bad. There are some big surprises in store for readers :)

    I agree with you totally re gardening being a fun, experimental experience. That's what I'm aiming to encourage with this series.

    Esther - could you guerrilla garden them somewhere instead?

    Dobby - that's it, I'm all for more learning :) And laughing - there's not garden giggling going on in my view. In public at least ;)

    Deborah - welcome :) I've done that too in previous years - with another post Christmas sales bargain.

    Anna B - you're spot on.

    Rachel - don't feel bad. I'm so glad this post has inspired you to get cracking with your tulips :)

    Lizzy - yep, other things just get in the way in the run up to Christmas.

    flowerlady - hello! I'm with Christopher Lloyd too :)

    Sue - no it isn't. There's so many variables to take into account :)

  21. Now this is my kind of post! it has taken me a while to realise that they aren't so much rules as guidelines, and as such, can be broken or at least explored without the gardening police coming after me, so I break more and more rules. I'm always amazed at how much you can get away with, which is a relief to those of us who can't always do things "at the right time". Will watch for the results of your late bulb planting with interest, has to be better than letting them rot in the store.

  22. Hi Janet - yes, 'guidelines' is a much better description. Seed sowing times is a perfect example bearing in mind how variable our light and temperatures are in the UK. If this series encourages a few people to experiment more, or not to feel guilty about not doing something at the 'given time' (whatever that is), then I'll be happy :)

  23. Going to give this a go, picked up a pack of 10 from my local garden centre for 99p, all starting to sprout.

    Paul K

  24. Hi Paul - it's definitely worth a go :)


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