Gardening: It's not too late for planting tulips

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

The display garden at the OPC in Rochester was aging beautifully into fall and I was looking forward to taking advantage of an Indian Summer to finish fall chores when the temperatures took a dump and we were hit with a killing frost.   

Red, orange and yellow tulips in vase

If, like me,  you failed to get your tulips planted, not to worry. Old-timey gardeners advise as long as you can get a shovel in the ground it’s OK to plant spring flowering bulbs.  Some pros suggest they actually do better if planted when the ground harbors a bit of frost, so take advantage of those late season sales and plant away.

Don’t bother slowing the planting process by adding bone meal or other fertilizers to the holes. Bulbs contain enough food to produce beautiful blooms without added nutrients and the addition of these organics often attracts animals. If you feel you must fertilize, do so just after the blooms fade in spring.

All is probably not lost if you failed to dig your dahlia bulbs before the killing frost. Though the temperatures dropped into the high 20s for a few hours, the soil did not freeze, so chances are the tubers were not damaged. And cold soil stimulates the tubers to set eyes that sprout into new plants in spring and the bulbs should still be fine. Cut back the blackened foliage and dig the tubers. A garden fork is the tool choice for this job as it does less damage to the tubers.

Brush away the soil and set the bulbs on a bench in a protected area such as an attached garage where they will not freeze and allow them to dry for a few days. The pros wash the bulbs after digging, but I know lots of people who pass in this process.  When the tubers are dry, pack them in boxes filled with Canadian sphagnum peat moss.  Some folks simply wrap them in newspaper.

Google “how to overwinter dahlia bulbs in cold climates” and you’ll find all kinds of info and videos showing different techniques and advice.

Because I live in a condo, I have to pass and simply replace my dahlia bulbs annually. 

 Timely tip: When prepping your pots for the winter, don’t overlook those self-watering containers that may still have water in their reservoirs.  Freezing water expands and can crack the walls of a pot. Emptying the pot and tipping it upside down to drain out the water is a smart move.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at