Tulips Benefit From a Big Chill


Question: My grandmother used to grow tulips in her garden in Virginia. I really like them and want to grow them in my garden, but I’ve heard that it doesn’t get cold enough in Southern California. Is that true?

B.L., Brea

Answer: The answer to your question is two-fold. It is true that it doesn’t get cold enough here for tulips to naturalize and come back year after year as they did in your grandmother’s garden.

It is still possible, though, to grow tulips in our mild climate.


The secret is to pre-chill them in your refrigerator before planting and treat them as an “annual bulb.” Chilling tulip bulbs in the refrigerator mimics the cold nights found in cooler areas, such as Holland, where tulips grow in abundance.

Cooling tulip bulbs is important. Without chilling, the resulting flowers will be short and small.

Because of our mild winters, tulips rarely come back for more than a year or two. Though some gardeners try digging the bulbs up and re-chilling them, experts report that this generally doesn’t work very well.

For the best show, they suggest buying and chilling new bulbs each fall.

Now is a good time to begin buying tulip bulbs, which should be appearing in nurseries. Though they will be available over the next two or three months, buying now assures that you get the best selection.

Look for bulbs that are large and firm.

Tulips bloom each spring anywhere from March through May, depending on the variety. Because the tulip bloom is notoriously short-lived, it’s a good idea to try planting early, mid-season and late varieties for the longest possible season of color. Staggering planting times of the same variety of tulips usually won’t give you a longer display, as each variety is bred to bloom at a specific time, despite when it’s planted.


Here are some tips for chilling and planting your tulip bulbs.

* To chill tulip bulbs, place them in a paper or plastic bag punched with holes and store them in the refrigerator for six weeks or more. Don’t place bulbs near apples because they give off ethylene gas, which causes bulbs to rot.

* The bulbs can be planted from November through early January. Just make sure to keep them in the refrigerator until you plant them, because once removed from the cold they tend to mold and weaken.

* Provide excellent drainage. Tulips will rot in soggy soil. It is important to generously amend your soil with homemade or bagged compost and perlite or pumice before planting. If your soil is heavy clay, gypsum is also suggested.

* Use a high-quality potting soil that has a lot of perlite or pumice, or add some to lighten the soil. Tulips do especially well in containers, where they tend to make a stunning display.

* Plant tulip bulbs in the ground about 5 to 6 inches deep and 5 inches apart with the pointy end facing up.

It’s possible to plant many tulips in containers. In pots they can be planted so they are touching each other and are an inch deep. Plant bulbs against the outside of the pot and move inward in a circular fashion until you hit the center.

Have a problem in your yard? University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardeners are here to help. These trained and certified horticultural volunteers are dedicated to extending research-based, scientifically accurate information to the public about home horticulture and pest management. They are involved with a variety of outreach programs, including the UCCE Master Garden hotline, which provides answers to specific questions. You can reach the hotline at (714) 708-1646 or send e-mail to Calls and e-mail are picked up daily and are generally returned within three days.