Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start coming up mid-winter. As weather becomes more unpredictable, early growth is becoming more and more common. Not to worry, though. Your spring bulbs have seen it all before. Moreover, they’re built to handle a few temperature swings.
THE UNDERGROUND WORLD OF BULBS
To understand why spring bulbs can tolerate a little premature growth, it helps to take a peek underground.
Botanically speaking, your bulb is a short stem surrounded by leaves that store food during dormancy. As soon as you plant it in the fall, it starts growing.
Bulbs have five main parts: a basal plate, scale leaves, protective tunic, flowering shoot and lateral buds. Growth begins in the basal plate. During the winter months, roots emerge from this modified stem to penetrate the soil.
As they develop, the roots absorb water and other nutrients that they store in the scale leaves.
Photo credit/University of Illinois Extension
In some flower species like alliums, a thin papery covering called the tunic keeps the scales from damage or drying out.
Papery thin tunic keeps bulbs from drying out
The scale leaves also protect the flowering shoot. This vital part of the bulb contains all of the future leaves and flowers. During the winter months, the flowering shoot grows slowly upwards within the bulb. Eventually, it develops into a stem.
Sometime in winter, the leaves break through the soil. Then approximately one month later, the flower buds begin to appear.
At this stage in the process, the key thing to remember is: the flowers develop independently of the leaves.
This means that even if your bulbs (specifically, leaves) come up early, the flowering shoots still need time (between 5 and 7 weeks) to develop. And before that happens, your bulbs have most likely weathered the warm spell and resumed dormancy.
So if you see leaves poking up out of the ground too early, don’t worry. A cold snap may cause them to yellow and die back, but the bulb will wait things out and send up new growth once things warm back up again.
WAYS TO SLOW BULBS FROM COMING UP TOO EARLY
There are a few strategies, however, that you can implement now to slow things down while providing an extra layer of protection to the flowering shoot.
1. COVER YOUR PLANT
Covering the soil around your spring bulbs will help insulate them against frigid temperatures and drying winds. Mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves and pine needles are all great alternatives.
Or, if your bulb is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Make sure to remove the drape during the day, though, so the leaves can absorb sunlight, which produces heat.
2. WATER DURING DRY SPELLS
Always water your bulbs immediately after planting to settle the soil and get the roots growing. Spring bulbs are generally considered to be drought-tolerant. However, if there’s been a dry spell for an extended period of time, you should water them once a week until conditions improve.
Make sure your soil has good drainage, though. Bulbs can rot if they receive too much water.
3. IF FLOWERS START TO APPEAR
If the weather continues to stay unseasonably warm, your spring bulbs may start to produce flowers. Don’t worry. Even if frost kills off some of the initial buds, it usually won’t affect flowering in the coming months. And it won’t destroy your bulbs. They’ll still flower next year.
4. PLANT BULBS LATE IN THE FALL
The later in the fall you plant, the longer the bulb will take to sprout come spring. Wait until the temperature is cold enough (40°F or below at night) to plant your spring bulbs to ensure they’re fully dormant. Here in Maryland, I plant my daffodils in late November.
Finally, make sure to plant your bulbs at three times their height in depth with the basal plate down and the growing tip up. Planting bulbs too shallow makes them vulnerable to frost heaves and can lead to premature growth. And planting them upside down can stunt their growth.
For a list of ten popular spring bulbs and when and how to plant them, click here.
Author’s note January 2020: According to Science News, there is growing evidence that, in general, warmer springs are bringing earlier spring flowers. This in turn will result in longer growing seasons and drier summers. (This does not, however, mean daffodils in January.)
Here in Maryland we are having an unseasonably warm winter. In fact, it’s 65 here today on February 3. Below is a photo illustrating the state of my daffodils. (The leaves are about 3″ tall.) I’ll keep you posted as to their development.
My own daffodils on February 3
Same daffodils on February 24 – all foliage, luckily no blooms!
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