What To Do If Your Spring Bulbs Come Up Too Early

(Last week it was 70 degrees, now it’s 20)

Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start popping up mid-winter. As weather becomes more unpredictable, early growth is becoming more and more common in spring bulbs. Not to worry, though. Your plants 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 weather a little premature growth, it helps to take a peek underground.

Botanically speaking, a bulb is a short stem surrounded by fleshy leaves that store food during dormancy. As soon as you plant it in the fall, a spring bulb starts growing.

Each bulb has five major parts:  a basal plate, scale leaves, protective tunic, a flowering shoot and lateral buds. The action 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

Not only do the scale leaves provide food storage, but they 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 slowly grows upwards within the bulb, eventually developing into a stem.

Finally, at a pre-determined time in the spring, the leaves are the first to break through the soil. Then approximately one month later, the flowering shoot begins 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 STOP YOUR 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 extreme winter weather like frigid temperatures and drying winds. Try mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves or pine needles.

Or, if the plant is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Remove the drape during the day so the foliage can absorb sunlight to warm back up.

2. WATER DURING DRY SPELLS

If there’s been a dry spell for an extended period of time, a little extra water during the day helps bulbs grow. However, make sure your soil has good drainage. 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 November.

Finally, make sure to plant your bulbs at three times their height in depth with the base down and the bud 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 daffodils in february

My own daffodils on February 3

Same daffodils on February 24 – all foliage, luckily no blooms!

Looking for more information on daffodil care? I posted an article this week (February 2020) answering five top questions posed by my readers. Join the discussion! 

24 thoughts on “What To Do If Your Spring Bulbs Come Up Too Early

  1. I’m sorry, I’m confused. If the bulbs are coming up early because it’s a warm winter, why would you cover them with something to keep them warm? Then they will all start blooming and there is a likelyhood that you will get another cold snap and they will all die. Don’t you want them to be cold until spring?

    • Hi Laura, mulch helps maintain a cool and stable soil around your bulbs – assuming that you planted them late in the season when temperatures have cooled. It performs the same function in the summer for perennials- keeps the roots cooler and shield the plants from drying winds and sun.
      The most important thing is not to plants your bulbs too early.
      But even if foliage breaks the surface early, unless you see flowers, too, your bulb will resume dormancy. Hope this helps.

    • Hi Chelsea, thanks for writing. Once the flowers come up, there’s usually no turning back. Hopefully they’ll continue to bloom up until their appropriate season!
      It’s clear that things are getting hotter and correspondingly affecting our plants. Here in Maryland, we are still planting in January as the ground never froze. From a gardener’s point of view, this is all pretty scary.
      Best,
      Carole

  2. If they are coming up now… and nearly ready to bloom… can you dig up a few bulbs with all leaves and buds attached and replant in a small pot to give as a gift? I would love to give as a gift so they can be appreciated by others as well.

    • Hi Monique, thanks for writing. In my experience, it’s never a good thing to dig up a plant once it starts flowering. Daffodils are best moved (or divided) in the late fall when they’re dormant. That being said, I’ve had limited success moving flowering plants by taking up a generous amount of soil along with them – that way they don’t know they’ve been moved. You certainly don’t want to expose any of the bulb or roots to the air, which will terminate the flowering for the season.
      Daffodils do really well in pots, however. Might be a great idea for next year! Best, Carole

  3. I planted daffodils and I planted rocuses above them. But crocuses never came up and some daffodils are already 8 inch long!
    That was my first time ever planting something…
    So now I wonder if crocuses ever gonna come up?
    And it got really cold, it was 20 F last night.
    Are my daffodils gonna be fine?
    I put like 2 inch of shredded leaves on soil surface in november.

    • Hi Yulia, In my experience, crocuses can come up anytime between late winter and early spring. They just show up one day – so there may be some hope that yours will, too.
      Regarding the daffodils – as long as there aren’t flower stalks yet (the final stage in the growth of the bulb), the leaves will most likely die back from the cold and reemerge when things warm up again. It’s good that you gave the bulbs the extra mulch in November. It helps keep the soil temperature cool, which in turn helps the bulbs bloom when they’re supposed to. That being said, I’ve never seen such crazy weather in January!!
      Let me know how things go. Best,
      Carole

  4. Thanks for this post!
    This is my first year planting bulbs. I did mulch over them in the fall, but not too much. Anyway, like so many other people the daffodils started coming up more than a month ago, and plenty of advice online said not to worry. But they’ve continued to come up. Some of them are a good six to eight inches out of the ground, thought there are no flowers.
    My specific question is that I was told that this first season I should fertilize (with bulb tone) when they started to grow in the spring – in order to help them for future seasons. (I got smaller sized bulbs that were supposed to take a few more years to fully mature.) Even as they continue to grow I haven’t fertilized them since it’s not spring and doesn’t seem right. Should I continue to hold off??

    • Hi Danny, Congrats on your first year planting bulbs! Depending on the variety, it’s natural that you’d be seeing some foliage by now. In our zone (7), Topolino, Tete a Tete (one of my favorites) and February Gold are often blooming by end of February/early March. That being said, many areas of the country are experiencing an abnormally warm winter this year, which unlike regular warm ‘spells’, is definitely confusing our daffodils! Is your’s an early blooming variety?
      I fertilize my own daffodils in very early spring (before the flowers appear) with a water soluble fertilizer designed for daffodils.I tend to stay away from granular fertilizers since they can burn the bulbs if they’re not properly diluted with (rain)water. It’s important to fertilize again in the spring because the bulbs use fall’s fertilizer to initiate roots.
      After flowering, don’t forget to leave the leaves and stems on the plant until they yellow. As long as they’re still green, they’re manufacturing carbs that the bulb uses for energy next year. You can hide the decaying leaves by planting perennials with similar foliage around them or get fancy and tie them up by bending them in half and using one of the leaves as a bow.
      Hope this helps! Keep me posted. Best, Carole

      • Thanks for the reply. I planted a “Dutch Master” variety, supposed to bloom mid-spring. I actually planted the Tete a Tete elsewhere in the garden, and only the tops of the leaves are coming up.
        The Dutch Masters are close to the house, so maybe the ground is warmer there? I’m not sure. They look good, just very early. In the last few weeks I have some flower stalks visible, and one flower clearly developing. I still haven’t fertilized – in the fear that it will hasten blooming, and then the flowers won’t survive frozen temps at night.
        I have “Bulb Tone” by Espoma that I used at time of planting. My memory was that I was supposed to fertilize this first year as they started growing this year, but looking at their website now it says “after flowers bloom”. So I’ll keep holding off.
        I was aware of leaving the leaving the leaves on to yellow, but thanks for mentioning. I haven’t planted anything specific nearby to hide them, but the garden is small with other things going on. I’ll plant annuals in May so I’m hoping that will distract from the decaying daffodils then. I’ve also planted some allium which should come up and still be up later as well – though I see the leaves of one coming up already! (But just one, out of about 30.)
        I’m looking forward to seeing how this all plays out. The tete-a-tete are under a japanese maple. the plan was for them to bloom while the leaves were off, and then the new maple leaves would hide the decaying daffodils. As it turns out the old dried out leaves never really fell off. I’ve been thinking of taking them off by hand in order to appreciate the flowers underneath. I think about all these things way too much… 🙂

  5. The flower stalks are out and some flowers are showing yellow, so I guess they will open soon 🙈.
    It’s so warm again these days but at night time gets to 27, and some days to 20…

    I can see tulips foilage comming up too!

    Its super sunny where I planted them all, so I guess it makes it feels even warmer during daytime.

    I really hope they gonna be fine)))

  6. I noticed over the weekend that bulbs we planted last Spring (hyaciths, daffs and tulips) all have growth above ground, as well. One hyacinth even has a flower at ground level. I don’t like this; it’s not normal in my part of the country to see this in early February. I get excited for Spring after the long cold of winter but we don’t get that anymore. This climate change is taking all the fun out of gardening for me.

    • Hi Desiree, I couldn’t agree with you more. When I wrote this blog post a couple of years ago, we still had normal warm spells; that is, warm periods that lasted just a few days before the cold air returned. Here in Maryland, you would think it was spring with the temperatures hovering in the mid 40s to mid 50s and the forsythia already starting to bloom. I think we can expect a much longer growing season this year with things flowering earlier than usual. That means, unfortunately, a long and most likely dry summer. It’s unsettling, to say the least.

      • Hi Carole,

        Oh I wish I could believe we will have a dry summer. If so, it will be the first in 3 years. The torrential downpours we have had in recent years not only flood my yard and ruin years of hard work but wreak havoc on my budget and mean I can’t enjoy what should be my dream yard!! 🙁

  7. Hi Carole!

    Thanks for this article. I see you’re in Maryland! Nice to know I’m not the only one freaked out by this weather. I planted bulbs for the first time this fall. There were already some tulips in the garden from the previous owner so I knew my tulips coming up in early January was not right.
    Question is, I also planted daffodils, crocus, and hyacinth at the same time but they arent showing. Shouldnt at least the crocus be blooming? My garlic has sprouted too!

    Also I had some leftover tulip and daffodil bulbs and planted them out only 2 weeks ago. Normally I would think it’d be fine considering our winters last a while, but it’s not freezing! Should I take the ones I put in a pot and try the refrigerator method?

    Thank you!!

    • Hi Ari, I agree it’s strange that your daffodils and crocuses aren’t showing. When did you plant them? The daffodil foliage should definitely be showing by now given the warm winter we’ve had here in Maryland. Crocuses can flower anytime between now and early spring. Unlike daffodils, they seem to pop up over night. Hopefully, they’ll still emerge.
      As to your garlic- nothing stops garlic!
      And regarding your bulbs that you just planted. Just leave them in the ground and expect your flowers next year. They need at least 6 weeks of cooling underground before they can produce leaves and flowers. You may see some foliage later, but I’d be surprised if you saw blooms. I don’t advise removing them from the earth as they most likely have sprouted some sort of roots already and you risk severely damaging them.
      Keep me posted on the crocuses! Best, Carole

  8. Hi Carole
    I planted tulip bulbs in mid November here in Wales, UK. This week flowers are just peeping above the soil. No stalk and barely any foliage. It is very strange. Any ideas why?

    • Hi Pamela, I have never heard of this before, but can offer you some possible explanations based on what I know about tulips in general. Tulip growth is usually affected by three main things: 1) soil temperature, 2) soil moisture, and 3) planting depth. Have you had an abnormally warm winter? Or very cold? Tulips like soil temperatures hovering around 30 degrees F (irrespective of ground temps). Regarding soil moisture – tulips like moist soil, but not wet (which can rot the bulbs) – perhaps you had a dry winter and they didn’t receive enough water? Lastly, planting depth can affect tulip performance. Too shallow and they’ll come up faster, too deep and it takes longer. I’m wondering if this latter reason is why yours are appearing so close to the soil.
      Hopefully they’ll get their act together soon. Good luck and keep me posted! Best,
      Carole

    • Good morning Church of Baseball! (and go Nats!), I’m glad your daffodils are progressing well. I photographed mine a few weeks ago when it looked like they were ready to sprout flowers, but luckily so far only foliage has emerged. It looks like the bulbs weathered the warm spells and are more or less on track for March blooms.
      Regarding your tulips – it doesn’t sound good, but I’m not a tulip expert. There’s a great article on line, however, by a professor and researcher on tulips. You might find it helpful. https://journeynorth.org/tm/tulips/ExpertAnswer13.html. Lots of great questions from students.
      Good luck on your spring blooms and let me know how things turn out! Best, Carole

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