Spring has arrived…we think. It sure is hard to know these days, isn’t it? Here in the Midwest, we’ve experienced temperatures as low as 3 degrees F and as high as 80, all within the last month! One of the most frequently asked questions I’ve received lately has to do with the growth habits of spring-blooming bulbs, especially those of tulips. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from gardeners “My tulips are beautiful, but I expected them to be much taller!” over the past few weeks. So what is the problem with tulips this year?

Tulip bulbs, like most other fall-planted bulbs such as hyacinth, daffodils, and allium, require a “chilling period” of anywhere from 8-16 weeks with temperatures consistently 55 degrees F or below. If any of these bulbs fail to receive the adequate amount of chilling or have an interruption of warmth during this chilling period, the process within the bulb that produces the bloom is thrown a bit off. Considering that over 75% of the United States had average temperatures at least 5 degrees ABOVE normal during January 2012 alone (check out this map provided in an article appearing in Times Union), many bulbs (as well as other plants) did not receive a typical “winter”. Unfortunately, in the case of tulips, this can mean the difference between a plant reaching its appropriate height while producing a beautiful bloom and it growing with only a weak display of a few sparse leaves with a shortened flower stem. Therefore, while it’s not a fun conclusion to come to, it should not be extremely surprising that many tulips are not performing as expected this spring season considering the “winter” many parts of the country did, or rather did not, receive.

So they say knowledge is power, right? Now that we maybe understand why this happened, what can we as gardeners do about it? Unfortunately, the answer is not much. Considering the lack of control we have over the weather conditions and patterns, there is no way to create an artificial environment for your plants and bulbs planted outdoors unless you were somehow able to encapsulate your entire landscape in the confines of a bubble, similar to the houses the Jetsons resided in. The best thing you can do for you tulips is give them patience, keeping in mind that even though their show may be less than satisfactory this year, they still need to progress through the stages of sprouting, blooming, and then entering into dormancy. This means leaving the foliage in the ground until it has dried and browned to a point when it can be easily removed from the bulb without causing any uprooting. This will allow the plant to continue to make food for the bulb, encouraging lush growth and blooms for the following season. Once they complete their cycle this spring and summer, they will (hopefully) receive a proper fall and winter this coming year and return bigger and better than ever in the spring of 2013.

With hands in the dirt and head in the clouds,

P.S. Feel like you missed out on the spring show of bulbs this year due to the odd weather? Why not try some spring-planted bulbs and enjoy blooms this summer!