While most of the garden has finished its growing cycle in Autumn, spring flowering bulbs are just getting started. Each bulb you plant in fall contains everything it needs to grow roots, survive winter, and emerge in brilliant colors to herald spring. If you envision returning home from a winter escape to cheery daffodils and tulips that brighten your landscape, this post is for you! You’ll learn how to plant spring bulbs in fall, which bulbs to select and plant, along with some beginner mistakes to avoid. If you plant spring-flowering bulbs now, you can look forward to their brilliant spring debut.
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CONTENTS: In this article, you will learn all about planting spring flowering bulbs in the fall so you can look forward to a beautiful spring garden, including:
- Which Flowering Bulbs Should You Plant?
- Garden Design: Good Spring Bulb Combinations
- How to Select and Healthy Flower Bulbs
- Storing Your Bulbs
- Planting Instructions for Planting Spring Flowering Bulbs in Fall
- Beginner Mistakes to Avoid When Planting Spring Bulbs
- Final Thoughts
Which Flowering Bulbs Should You Plant?
Popular Spring Bulbs to Plant
Tulips (Tulipa) are by far the most versatile of bulbs. Ranging from a few inches to 3-feet tall, you’ll find tulips available in a multitude of solid and mixed colors. From the most brilliant red to soft cream hues, they are stunning en mass or as sentries along a walkway. So versatile, tulips stand at attention to complement the most formal gardens and flatter informal beds, as well.
In addition to the common oval shaped or “Darwin” tulips, you’ll find tulip varieties with fringed, scalloped, pointed, and double petals.
Species tulips, which are un-hybridized tulips, are unique, tolerate rocky soil, and tend to be longer lived than common Darwin hybrids. The best plan is to treat Darwin hybrids as short-lived perennials since their performance diminishes from year to year, and incorporate species tulips to naturalize an area.
Here’s a trick: You can extend the bloom season by planting a mix of early-, mid-, and late-flowering tulips.
You’ll find cheerful Daffodils (Narcissus) in shades of yellow, white, pink, and orange. They nod to follow the sun, much like a sunflower does. Some daffodils, like “Dutch Master” portray the familiar trumpet form. Others, such as “Texas,” have ruffled centers and look more like delicate tissue. You’ll also find small-flowered species, like Tete-a-tete. This heirloom variety sports clusters of dainty buttercup-yellow flowers little more than an inch in diameter–and fragrant, too!
Tip: Daffodils naturalize well, even in the northeastern US, so investing in a large quantity of these spring flowering bulbs pays dividends. Honestly, what’s better than no-fuss flowers that multiply year-after-year?
Early Blooming Spring Flowering Bulbs
If it’s an early start to the season you’re looking for, then plant some of these spring flowering bulbs. The added advantage is that these bulbs are usually smaller in size, so easier to plant.
- Snowdrops (Galanthus) often emerge and bloom in delicate white snowflake like flowers while snow is still on the ground.
- Dwarf Iris (Iris reticulata) and crocus are also among the earliest risers.
- For fragrance, the heady scent of Hyacinths can’t be beat. Be sure to plant these frilly beauties near a doorways to enjoy their heady perfume as you pass by.
- Crocus flowers emerge the earliest when planted on the south side of your property and close to your home’s foundation. For foodies: If you love to cook with herbs from the garden, you might consider planting the fall-blooming crocus sativus. You can then harvest the red stamen for the expensive herb, saffron.
Unique Spring Flowering Bulbs to Plant
For added interest, you might include some less common but incredibly beautiful spring blooming plants into the garden, like these.
- Delicate Pink Cyclamen hardly looks capable of blooming in late-winter and early spring. Yet it does. Technically a tuberous perennial, not a bulb, but a worth contender for your spring garden.
- Anemones (say “ah-NEM-un-ees”) are another with a delicate look, sporting daisy-like flowers that arise up from the cold earth as far north as USDA Zone 5. Because anemone bulbs are small, it’s easy to plant a lot of them. (Hint: if you miss the opportunity to planting them in fall, you can plant them in spring for a summer bloom.)
- Perhaps the most unusual looking of the lot are Fritellaria. These exotic specimens feature hanging umbrella shaped flowers in vibrant orange or pink–even speckled or black!
- Finally, don’t overlook the orb-shaped flowers of Ornamental Onions (Allium) to add an element of drama to your spring garden.
Garden Design: Some Winning Bulb Combinations
The most dramatic display of bulbs often comes from a massed bed of a single color. But don’t underestimate the beauty of classic but striking combinations like red Tulips and yellow Daffodils with blue Grape Hyacinths.
Love blues? How about Dwarf Iris and Forget-Me-Nots (miosotis)?
It’s hard not to feel cheery around a window box filled with yellow Tete-a-Tete Daffodils and peach-colored Pansies (Viola).
Or partner nodding white Snowdrops with mauve Lenten Rose (Hellebores) for the earliest spring garden display.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match to discover your own winning garden combinations. Just be sure to be aware of the bloom times as you orchestrate a colorful performance.
How to Select Healthy Flower Bulbs
Once you know what type of spring flowering bulbs you’d like, you’ll want to select healthy bulbs.
If you’re buying from a brick-and-mortar store, you’ll want to hand-pick individual bulbs much like you would an onion: choose bulbs that are solid when squeezed and don’t have any soft pots. Examine each bulb for signs of disease or insects. If you opt to buy bulbs sold in bulk, which are often in paper bags, test for freshness through packaging with the same “squeeze test.” The bulbs (as much as you can tell) should all feel solid. Unless you are at a trusted garden store, it’s hard to know how long the bulbs have been in inventory, solook for a “packed for season” date to make sure the bulbs are not old.
If you’re buying bulbs online, the best way to ensure healthy, viable bulbs is to buy from reputable sources. Some of the more well-known online sources I trust for bulbs include (in alphabetical order):
How to Store Bulbs Before Planting
If you’ve received bulbs earlier than you’re ready to plant them, store the bulbs in a cool, dry place. You might simply put them in your garage or basement for the time being. The best way to keep them fresh is to pack them in peat moss, packing peanuts, or sawdust with the root end down and spaced apart. Bulbs stored improperly may become diseased.
Planting Instructions for Planting Bulbs in Fall
As a general rule, bulbs prefer full sun. Fortunately for gardeners, many areas that are in shade during summer receive full sun in spring before trees leaf out. Because of this, you can consider shady spots and woodland settings an option in addition to standard garden beds for your spring flowering bulbs.
Larger bulbs, like tulips and daffodils, look best when groups and numbers of 8 to 10. Avoid planting them in a straight line, which can look awkward. Small bulbs, like Dwarf Iris (Iris reticulata), Grape Hyacinth (muscari) and crocus have the most impact when massed by the hundreds. It’s an easier task than you might suspect, since the small bulbs require only shallow planting.
Many planting guides provide charts about bulb planting depth. A good rule of thumb is to plant bulbs to a depth of 3 to 5 times their width, with the point facing upward.
Tip: If you’re unsure which is the top of the bulb, plant it sideways and it will right Itself by spring.
Dig a wide hole in which to plant a group of bulbs using a shovel, or use a special tool designed for planting individual bulbs. Add compost and a low nitrogen high phosphorus bulb fertilizer into the hole to encourage bulb roots’ growth. Allow bulbs to establish a good root system before the cold and dry winter sets in by planting earlier in the season, but not so early that they will sprout or be eaten by vermin.
Tip: Layer several different types of bulbs or plant same type of bulb at varying depths within a hole for a prolonged display.
Camouflage bulbs foliage under perennials like ferns for Hosta until it turns yellow. Then, it is safe to remove the leaves, but mark the spot as a reminder.
The technique of “naturalizing” allows bulbs to spread naturally in a landscape like a wildflower. This is easily achieved with daffodils, which can easily withstand competition from grass. Naturalize an area that won’t be mowed for a while, since foliage needs to remain in place until turning yellow. Otherwise, the bulbs may not have enough energy to bloom the following year. Alternatively, try naturalizing with shorter spring-flowering bulbs, such as Squill (Scilius America) or Cocus. The mower’s blade will most likely bypass them.
10 Beginner Mistakes (Do’s & Don’ts) When Planting Spring Flowering Bulbs
It’s easy to make some beginner mistakes when you’re new to planting bulbs. Here are some quick “do’s and don’ts” for planting bulbs to save you some trouble:
1. Don’t plant your bulbs too deep. They will suffocate and rot, or reach the surface but never bloom.
2. Do plant your bulbs “pointy side up.”
3. Don’t follow the spacing advice on packaging exactly. You can usually plant bulbs a little closer than they say (but make sure they have some space to breathe).
4. Do plant bulbs in loose, rich soil. Amend soil with compost, sawdust, peat moss, or other humus-rich substances to improve the texture of the soil.
5. Don’t plant a big clump of bulbs in a perennial garden. They may look great when they flower, but after they bloom the will leave a bunch of unsightly leaves behind; better to tuck small clusters in among the perennials. You can even plant perennials over your bulbs.
6. Do use the right tools to plant bulbs. If you’re not creating a whole bed or bulbs (which is best suited to a pitchfork and shovel), the best options might be a hand bulb planter or an auger. The hand bulb planter has a cutting edge similar to a biscuit cutter that you can twist and lean into to pull up a cylindrical clump of dirt. It also shows the planting depth. An auger can be attached to your power drill and takes out the effort.
7. Do mix into the planting site 10-10-10 soluble fertilizer or bulb fertilizer to feed bulbs, plus bonemeal to encourage root growth. It’s best to do this OVER the bulbs rather than put the roots in direct contact with fertilizer or bonemeal.
8. Don’t plant spring-flowering bulbs at the wrong time of year: the best time is in the fall, September through October, after the soil has cooled.
9. Do mark the locations of where you’ve planted bulbs so you don’t dig them up by mistake while they lie dormant.
10. Do expect that you might lose some bulbs to creatures, like deer, squirrel, chipmunk, and rabbits. Some loss is inevitable (and so disappointing)! You can cover your bulb plantings with chicken wire (or even encase bulbs in a chicken wire “box”). You might also try a reppelent. Finally, you could choose or incorporate bulbs that critters aren’t particularly fond off: Daffodils, Allium, Scilla, Squill, Hyacinth, Muscari, Fritillaria, or snowdrops.
Final Thoughts on Planting Spring Bulbs
Many gardeners dread the cabin fever–or perhaps welcome the winter reprieve–as the days get colder. But rest assured! If you plant spring flowering bulbs now, it won’t be long before the first bit of green emerges to herald the end of winter. It may even brighten up your whole outlook.
Do you plant spring flowering bulbs in your garden? Are there bulbs you’d like to try? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
This article appeared originally in The Country Gazette Homefront section as “Anticipate Spring By Planting Bulbs,” by Jackie Gately.
Photo credits: Path of Tulips: Image by Jill Wellington; Crocus: Image by bernswaelz; Cyclamen: Image by Big_Heart; Daffodils: Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter; Anemone: Image by Bruno /Germany; all sourced from Pixabay
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