How Long Do Bulbs Last Unplanted?

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Do flower and plant bulbs have a shelf life?

Yes, they do. Bulbs can live about a year before they need planting.

People often forget to stash away a pile of bulbs or see bulbs for sale at garden centers and wonder if they are still good. 

To help you with such issues, I put together this guide to help keep your bulbs and your garden in top condition!

How Many Years Do Flower Bulbs Last?

The most common bulbs gardeners love to plant are tulips, crocus, daffodil, and anemone. These flowers are all perennial bulbs that come back yearly, and will remain viable for three to five years when you supply them with good garden soil and nutrients.

The best part about perennial bulbs is you can leave them in the ground, and they often naturalize by adapting to their environment. The bulbs spread offsets on their own, so when older bulbs die off, new bulbs are there to bloom, so your garden looks lush without any work on your part.

When you hear gardening experts speak of an “annual” bulb (technically still perennials), they refer to plant bulbs that look their best for one season only.

After the season, you’ll need to dig them out and plant new ones to keep your garden colorful. While they may grow foliage if replanted or left in the ground, annual bulbs rarely have the energy to bloom again. 

Tulips, for example, need highly specific temperatures and care if you wish them to bloom for several years, which is why many gardeners dig them up and store them over the winter. This ritual ensures proper dormancy, so they will survive to bloom again.

On the other hand, you can ignore daffodil and anemone bulbs in climate hardy zones 5-9 and watch them spread and bloom vigorously year after year. In colder zones, it’s best to pull them to store for winter to avoid bulb damage.

TIP: The key to giving bulbs a fighting chance to rebloom yearly is to let the foliage to die back completely before pruning away dying leaves. The flowers use the leaves after blooming to gather and store energy in the bulb for next year’s growth. 

For those gardeners who like a tidy garden, having the patience to look at browning and limp foliage can be a struggle! My trick is to always plant different perennial specimens around my bulbs, helping hide the dying foliage.

I forgot To Plant Bulbs! Now What?

I can’t count the times I pull out my gardening gear in spring to find a few bulbs I either forgot to store after pulling or are still in the packaging that I never had a chance to plant.

When this happens to you, don’t panic! Often, you can revive these bulbs into viable plants by following these steps:

Step 1 – Choose When To Plant

In The Fall

If you find loose bulbs in the fall and your ground is still diggable, go ahead and plant them. Give them one good soak of water to perk them up. They should overwinter, getting the cold temps they need to regrow and pop up again in the spring.

If they don’t bloom the following spring, don’t panic. The bulb may need a full growing season to regroup and store enough energy to flower the next year again.

In The Winter

If you find bulbs after winter has started, place the bulbs in a pot. Water them in and put the pot in an unheated yet protected area like a garage or patio room that stays near 40-degrees Fahrenheit.

You do not want the bulbs to freeze. You need to keep the bulbs cold for at least three months. After that, you can bring them indoors to the warmth, which will force growth (yes, you can enjoy bulb flowers indoors!), or take them back outside and let them bloom in the container, or transplant them back into the ground after the ground thaws.

In The Spring

If you find bulbs lying around in the spring, plant them right away and water. The bulbs should grow.

Don’t expect them to flower if the bulbs were in a location that didn’t get cold enough to give them the 12-14 weeks of dormancy they require for new root growth that supports flowering. 

Step 2 – Choose Storage

In fall or winter, you can opt to store the bulbs until spring planting. 

Clean off any dirt or debris, which deters rotting. If the bulb feels damp, place them in a sunny location for a week to dry out.

Place the bulbs, root down, into a box of dry peat moss, sawdust, or even packing peanuts. Make sure the bulbs do not touch each other. Cover them with more material and place the box in a dark and dry location.

The best place to store the bulbs’ box is in a chilly attic, garage, or basement that won’t reach freezing temperatures. You also never want to place them near any heat source.

TIP: Never store bulbs in locations where you are also storing any fruit, like apples. Ripening fruit emits ethylene gas, which is deadly to flower bulbs.

Related | Can You Eat Crab Apples?

How Do I know If Bulbs Have Gone Bad?

While all dormant bulbs look relatively dry and brown, they are most likely perfectly fine if they’re firm to the touch but not rock solid. Bulbs that are mushy or shriveled are dead, and you need to throw them away.

Unfortunately, a bulb that looks okay may grow but not deliver the blooms that you expect.

When you are planting and pulling bulbs in your home garden, you can keep track of how many years they have been in action and have a visual of their strength of foliage and flowering each season. When bulbs start to diminish, you can toss the old ones and start fresh.

But what about those packaged bulbs at the store? How can you tell if those are going to grow as you expect?

You should be able to test the bulbs through the packaging for firmness. If they feel fine, look for a “best before” date on the label. Most flower companies date their bulbs to prevent customer disappointment.

Often, mass retailers still put out older, ready-to-expire bulbs on sale. I have fallen for the temptation of cheap bulbs many times and found them to be a waste of money and time more often than not when they fail to grow.

I also check for life by weighing the bulbs in my hand. Bulbs should have a bit of heft to them when alive. If a bag of bulbs feels light, they are dried out and dead, so put them back!

In Summary

Bulbs are a fantastic way to increase the interest and beauty of your garden. The bonus for avid gardeners is that many flower bulbs, especially if you live in a temperate region, require little to no work after the initial planting.

I hope this guide clarifies how long do bulbs last unplanted and how you can deal with forgotten or old bulbs.

Now you can plant your garden with confidence and reap the gorgeous rewards come spring and summer!