The Ultimate Guide to Planting Spring Bulbs

Lay the groundwork now for a head-over-heels bloom display after the snow melts.

Daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses and tulips are welcome sights for the winter-weary. If you’ve ever looked at a swath of colorful spring bulbs with envy, plant a bed of your own. With this helpful guide to planting spring bulbs, it’s easy to do and completely foolproof!

The Four Basics of Spring Bulbs

Start smart and reap happy results. From planning to designing, these tips ensure success.

photo credit: Silberfuchs/Pixabay
photo credit: Pixabay

Know your bulbs. There are those that flower in spring (scilla, allium, tulip, fritillary, hyacinth, crocus, snowdrop) and those that stun in summer (dahlia, gladiolus). Spring-flowering bulbs are planted the previous fall. This gives them time to adequately chill before rolling out their spectacular show months later. (Read more: 10 of the Best Daffodil Bulbs to Plant This Fall)

Make a plan. Look around and take stock of your existing plants. Consider where bare spots appear in early spring (under trees, in annual beds, along walkways where perennials won’t make an appearance until later), and imagine how a bed of beautiful bulbs would brighten up those areas.

Select the best. When buying bulbs at your local garden center, give them a good once-over. Make sure they are firm—avoid bulbs with mushy or moldy spots. Choose the largest bulbs in the variety you’re after, as those tend to be reliable bloomers. For a more comprehensive selection, check the websites of online nurseries. (Read more: 5 New Bulbs to Try This Fall)

Choose colors wisely. Mix and match spring-blooming bulbs as you wish, but resist the urge to include too many colors or varieties. Two to three will keep the look interesting and tasteful. Imagine drifts of orange-fringed tulips and grape hyacinths, or sweeping drifts of daffodils in varying hues mixed with pretty pansies.

How to Plant Spring Bulbs

You chose the best bulbs. Now you’re ready to dig in with confidence.

photo credit: Pixabay
photo credit: Pixabay

1. Time it right. Plant spring-blooming bulbs too early and they won’t bloom; plant too late and they won’t take root and establish. Ideally, bulbs should be planted at least six weeks before the ground freezes, when temperatures are cool. In the upper Midwest, for instance, that could be from about late September through mid-November.

2. Location, location. Choose the right real estate for your bulbs and be rewarded with healthy, long-lasting blooms. Must-have amenities: full sun and well-draining soil. Bulbs don’t like wet feet, so avoid areas where water gathers, such as the bottom of a slope. Make sure to also provide a little distance from established plants because bulbs are known to multiply.

3. Keep them organized. Once bulbs are removed from their packages, chances are you won’t be able to tell which is which. Keep them contained, labeled or sorted until you’re ready to plant.

4. Dig deep. Check packaging for specific planting instructions. If unsure, dig a hole that’s two to three times deeper than the bulb’s height. For example, plant a 2-inch-high bulb about 6 inches deep. Many garden tools designed for this type of planting provide measurement markers. (Hint: Speaking of tools, a bulb auger is ideal if you plan to plant a bevy this fall.)

5. Give soil the spa treatment. Break up any clumps, remove rocks and weeds, and improve drainage and overall quality by mixing in organic matter such as compost or peat moss. The easiest way to do this is to dig one large hole instead of several individual ones. Then mix in amendments all at once. (Read more: 13 Ways to Take Your Garden From Good to Great)

6. Plant for success. Plant a bulb pointy side up, roots down, but whatever side is up, it will most likely find its way through the soil in spring. After planting, tamp down the soil lightly, water well and cover with a couple of inches  of mulch.

7. Keep critters out. Squirrels and mice love digging up and snacking on freshly planted bulbs. To prevent their free buffet, either grow animal-resistant bulbs or lay wire mesh over the beds, then stake or weigh it down with stones. Remove once you see shoots in spring. (Read more: 5 Deer-Resistant Bulbs for Spring Blooms)

How to Create Beautiful Spring Bulb Displays

Use these ideas to get your green thumb in gear.

photo credit: Pixabay

1. Cluster for color. If you don’t have a lot of space, group one or two varieties together to create maximum impact. Concentrating color in small spaces delivers the most bang for your buck. Think bright, contrasting color if you’re the adventurous type. Muted pastels offer something more elegant.

2. Succession splendor. Select a few varieties with different bloom times. Intermingling early-, mid- and late-season bloomers sets the stage for an entire season of showstopping color.

3. Create layers. Adopt the double-decker technique and plant small, earlier flowering types such as crocus or scilla on top of larger mid- to late-spring blooming bulbs—tulips, daffodils and alliums.

4. Live on the edge. Use spring bulbs to edge early-season perennial beds and walkways. The blooms provide welcome color to areas of the yard that are just starting to show signs of life. An added bonus? If you plant them behind the perennials, emerging plants hide the spent bulb’s foliage as it fades.

5. Contain yourself. Force bulbs to bloom early by storing them in the refrigerator eight to 16 weeks, depending on variety. Keep them away from fresh fruit and veggies, as their gases cause spoilage. Once they’re properly chilled, transfer to a container filled with good quality potting mix. Store the container in an unheated garage or cellar until new growth emerges. Keep them in a cool, bright location indoors to enjoy spring a bit early. Then move them to a sunny location outside where you can enjoy the view.

Rachael Liska
Rachael Liska is a freelance writer and editor specializing in birding, gardening, food and family.