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Spring bulbs - your questions answered

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

It's that time of year again - when everyone starts talking about spring bulbs. Do I need to chill my bulbs? Do I put them in the freezer? Should I plant them in patterns? And the list goes on.

Fortunately, we’ve got some experience with this. Our family business (which includes New Zealand’s largest and longest established mail order bulb supplier NZ Bulbs) has been growing bulbs for over 62 years. That’s a lot of experience with bulbs! As well as more than 20 acres of bulbs, we produce over a million stems of cut flowers annually. Here are the answers to the spring bulb questions we get asked the most.

Do I need to chill my bulbs?

Yes - but only tulips and hyacinths. And it’s only essential if you experience fewer than five frosts a winter. But even if you do get enough natural chilling in winter, fridge chilling can still give benefits - taller stems and earlier flowering.

Tulips and hyacinths are native to areas which experience quite cold winters and they need this cold period for the bulb to complete the development of the flower bud deep inside. Sure signs you should have chilled your bulbs are if they produced unusually short stems or the bulbs failed to flower at all.

Done correctly, chilling your tulips and hyacinths will result in perfect spring flowers.

I haven’t got my spring bulbs yet, is there still time?

There’s still plenty of time, mid-April to mid-May are ideal planting times as the soil cools and we get some rain. Visit our web shop at to view and order from our extensive range of not only tulips and hyacinths, but anemones, ranunculus, freesias, daffodils and more.

Don’t have room in your fridge for bulbs? For a small fee of $5 we can perform the full refrigerated pre-chilling of tulips and hyacinths for you and ship them in mid-May. This will pop up as an option on our online store when you add either tulips or hyacinths to your cart.

What about my tulip and hyacinth bulbs that I chilled and then planted last year? Do I need to re-chill those ones?

If you live in a warmer area and chilled them before planting the first time, it is probably a good idea to lift them and repeat that for subsequent years.

Ideally, you will have harvested them during December/January and left them in an airy place for some weeks until you start chilling them now.

However, if you didn’t lift your bulbs and they’re still in the ground, it’s best to leave them there now. Areas that have had rain may have caused roots to start already and we don't want to disturb that. In December/January you can lift them and follow the above instructions.

How and when do I chill my tulips and hyacinths? And can I put them in the freezer?

1. Early to mid-April is the perfect time to start chilling your bulbs. Too early and you’ll stunt the flower bud development because the bulb is not ready for it yet.

2. Use a paper bag. It’s very important the bulbs can breathe and plastic bags cause sweating and rot may develop.

3. Keep the bulbs to the side of the fridge, not at the back where the cooler plate may ice up and damage them, or where condensation may cause mould to develop.

4. Never put bulbs in the freezer! The freezer is too cold and will kill your bulbs.

5. Keep fruit out of the fridge while you’re chilling your bulbs. Ripening fruit releases a gas called ethylene which can cause severe damage to the developing flower bud in the bulb. If you can’t keep fruit out of the fridge, include an ethylene-absorbing sachet in the bag with the bulb. This will prevent ethylene damage and suppress mould growth (they’re actually really good in the vege compartment too, to make your veges keep longer).

When do I plant my bulbs and how deep should I plant them?

Once you’ve chilled your bulbs for around eight weeks it’s time to start planting in mid to late May when soil temperatures are cooler.

Before you plant, work the soil with a fork to a depth of 25cm. This is deeper than the bulbs need to be planted but will allow their new roots to easily push further into the soil. Then plant your bulbs around 15cm deep - it’s cooler down there. Once planted give your bulbs a light watering.

In cooler parts of New Zealand you can plant tulips and hyacinths successfully in pots, but because pots warm up so quickly, even in winter, I don’t recommend them for warmer areas.

Apply a bulb fertiliser (available from your local garden centre) once the shoots emerge, and water it in well.

If I plant my bulbs in a pattern or a straight line will they stay in that pattern?

Yes, they will stay in that general shape, but as they naturally increase in numbers over the years the sharp lines and edges will become a little fuzzier.

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