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How to Have a Colorful Spring Garden – Plant Bulbs This Fall
When you first see a flower bulb, it can be hard to imagine the glorious show they’ll put on next season.
The bulbs themselves are unimpressive. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, they’re dry, covered in a papery skin, and seem as lifeless as a moon rock.
But inside that unassuming little package is an entire plant waiting to burst out.
And that’s the magic of bulbs.
Next spring, right when you feel like you can’t take one more grey, chilly day, the bulbs you planted this fall will add pops of cheerful color to your garden.
Luckily, they’re easy to plant. Just follow a few simple steps, and you’ll be a bulb planting expert in no time!
Oh, and if you want to know how I planted 4,000 bulbs in just a couple of days, be sure to scroll to the bottom…
Fall Planting Bulbs: Choose the Right Bulbs for Your Garden
Spring-blooming bulbs like daffodils, tulips, and crocuses are always planted in the fall because they need to go through a cold period over the winter to bloom next spring.
Know Your Growing Zone
Most spring-blooming bulbs will grow in all but the coldest hardiness zones.
If you live in a warm climate, most spring bulbs need an artificial chilling period (in a refrigerator) before they will bloom for you. You can also purchase “pre-chilled” bulbs that are already chilled and ready for you to plant.
Sun and Soil Requirements
- When you choose your bulbs, check the sun requirements to make sure you can give them the right growing conditions. Typically, you’ll want to choose a spot with at least 6 hours of sunlight.
- You can plant early-blooming bulbs under deciduous trees because they’ll get plenty of sun before the tree leafs out.
- Bulbs do best in soil that drains well and stays relatively dry over the winter. Avoid areas where water pools, such as at the bottom of hills. If they sit in soggy soil, they’ll rot.
Choose the Right Colors
Garden designers always work with a color palette in mind. And they choose colors that work together.
The best way to create a color palette for your bulbs is to limit yourself to 1-3 colors for each bed and bloom period (early, middle, late) to create a cohesive and put-together look for your garden.
One option is to choose a single color. The effect is simple and always has a big impact.
You can also design your bulb plantings around a pair of colors. For example,
- Blue and white,
- Red and yellow,
- Or orange and purple.
If one or two colors isn’t enough, you can choose a trio of several related colors. Think pink, lavender, and purple or yellow, orange, and red.
You can read more about garden design for beginners here.
Layer Your Bulbs for the Best Effect
Always consider bloom time and flower height when you plan your bulb garden.
Plant bulbs that bloom at the same time in groups.
You can create a more dramatic effect when you plant smaller bulbs with larger bulbs in a group.
For example, plant your daffodils with smaller bulbs like scilla or grape hyacinth.
- Daffodils need to be planted more deeply than scilla or grape hyacinths because the bulbs are larger.
- After you plant your daffodils, you can plant your scilla or grape hyacinths over them.
- That way you’ll get twice the color in the same space.
Remember: early, middle, and late.
To have a steady supply of spring blooms from your bulbs, pay attention to bloom time.
It’s possible to have almost two months of daffodils blooming in your garden if you plan right!
Good bulb catalogs tell you when the bulbs will bloom: early, middle, or late in the season.
See a list of my favorite bulb catalogs below.
Plant based on height.
When you’re planting different bulbs that bloom at the same time, plant the shorter bulbs in front of taller ones.
But if you’re planting bulbs in the same area that don’t bloom at the same time, there are times when it makes sense to plant the taller bulbs in front of the shorter bulbs.
For example, if the low growing bulbs bloom early and the tall bulbs bloom late, plant the taller ones in front. They’ll camouflage the dying foliage of the smaller bulbs.
Should You Plant Annual or Perennial Bulbs?
Many spring bulbs (daffodils, scilla, chionodoxa, alliums, and muscari) are considered perennials. They’ll bloom again every spring for several years. And some of these bulbs will “naturalize” and multiply over time.
Tulips and hyacinths are often treated as annuals because they usually look their best and bloom the most their first spring. If you find that to be the case in your garden, you’ll need to treat these bulbs as annuals and plant new ones every fall.
Select Quality Bulbs and Buy Them at the Right Time
I always order my bulbs through the mail. Catalogs have a better selection than local garden centers, and you can order bulbs in bulk at good prices.
And the best part is that you can place your order months in advance, and the catalog will ship your bulbs when it’s bulb-planting time where you live.
Some of my favorite bulb catalogs are:
But if you’re planning on buying only a few bulbs and are happy with the selection at your local store, here’s what you need to know.
- Look for bulbs that are plump and firm.
- Avoid bulbs that are soft, dried out, mushy, or have mold growing on them.
- And typically, larger bulbs of the same variety will bloom more compared to smaller ones.
Unfortunately, many stores sell their fall bulbs as early as July or August, so they can get their gardening supplies out of the way in time to set up holiday displays.
This means that you’ll either need to store your bulbs properly for one to three months or plan to order from a catalog, so you have fresh, healthy bulbs at planting time.
But if you’re stuck purchasing bulbs this early, here’s how to store them:
- Leave them in the bag they came in.
- Put that bag in a paper bag so you can store the bulbs in your fridge without making a mess.
- And don’t store your bulbs with fruit, since the ethylene gas that fruit gives off will make your bulbs go bad.
Do you have deer, vole, or rabbit problems?
Tired of starting each spring with headless tulips and vanishing crocus?
Then consider planting these six deer-resistant bulbs.
Plant in Clumps
Spring-blooming bulbs look best when you group them in “clumps” or large swaths.
Groups of bulbs have the greatest impact because they concentrate the color of the blooms into pops of color.
Even if you’re only planting a small number of bulbs, small clusters will have a bigger impact than scattering the bulbs far apart.
- Plant small bulbs such as scilla, crocus, or chionodoxa in groups of at least 12 when planted with other bulbs, and 25 when planted alone.
- Tulips look best in groups of at least 12 bulbs.
- Daffodils and alliums look best in a group of at least 5, but 7 or 9 looks even better.
How to Plant Bulbs
When to Plant Fall Bulbs
No matter where you live, there are a few ways to decide if it’s the right time to plant your fall bulbs.
If you live in a cold climate, where your soil freezes for several months over the winter, plant when nighttime temperatures are around 40 or 50 degrees farenheiht; or four to six weeks before you expect the ground to freeze.
- The bulbs need enough time to grow roots before the ground freezes
- So, that means that planting time is usually late September to mid-October in cold climates.
- If you buy bulbs and don’t get them in the ground by the end of October, you can plant bulbs right up until your ground freezes.
- Just know that bulbs planted this late might not survive. They may not be able to send out roots and get established quickly enough.
If you live in a warm climate, where the ground doesn’t freeze, then you’ll need to chill your bulbs or purchase pre-chilled bulbs.
Plant your bulbs in mid-October through November.
You can plant them as late as December but the later you wait, the bigger of a risk you’re taking.
How To Get Your Bulbs in the Ground
- Water your garden a few days before planting so your soil has a good moisture level for digging.
- Remove any mulch where you want the bulbs to go.
- Dig your holes. See below for an easy way to plant lots of bulbs.
- Place the bulbs in the hole pointy-side up, root-side down.
- Cover the bulbs with soil.
- Water them.
- Cover them back up with mulch.
How Deep to Plant Your Bulbs and How Far Apart to Space Them
How deep you plant your bulbs depends on the size of the bulb. Bulbs come in sizes as large as a baseball and as a small as a grape.
- The general rule is to plant them 2-3 times as deep as their height.
- And space them twice their width.
- If you order from a catalog, you should get depth and spacing instructions.
After You’ve Planted Your New Bulbs
Watering them will encourage your bulbs to send out roots and become established faster.
It’ll also eliminate any air pockets in the soil that could cause your bulbs to dry out.
It’s important to mulch your bulbs after you plant and water them. Mulch helps prevent weeds and keeps the bulbs from heaving over the winter.
Your bulbs will easily push up through the mulch, but most weed seeds won’t be able to sprout.
Should you fertilize your bulbs?
Skip the fertilizer unless you’ve had a soil test.
- Phosphorus is the nutrient you’ll see most often recommended to use when planting bulbs.
- But most urban and suburban garden soil in the U.S. has plenty of phosphorus. If your soil has enough phosphorus, you don’t want to add more. More phosphorus won’t help your plants, and excessive phosphorus in soil can runoff, and enter our waterways, causing algae blooms.
- The only way to know how much phosphorus your soil has is to get a professional soil test. Don’t use the soil test kits sold at the store. They’re worthless.
If your soil test indicates that you need to add phosphorus, you can add it next spring when you start to see the first shoots coming up from your bulbs. Be sure to spread it evenly over your entire bed, not just where you’ve planted your bulbs.
When can you cut back the foliage next year?
Leave the foliage in place until it yellows and withers. If you don’t, the bulb can’t make food for next year’s bloom.
How to Quickly and Easily Plant Lots of Bulbs
Have you ever seen a picture in a bulb catalog and wanted to re-create that in your own garden? – y’know the ones where you’re looking at a river of flowers, and there are blooms as far as the eye can see … then you know what led me to plant 4,000 bulbs one fall.
Bulbs look best when planted in big, irregular groupings, instead of straight rows. The more bulbs, the bigger the impact!
How I planted more than 4,000 bulbs in just a couple of days
Make a plan. I can’t stress enough how important planning was to pull this off. You’ll need to:
- Make a detailed planting plan – decide ahead of time which bulbs will go where. Don’t spend any time on planting day making placement decisions.
- Create a timeline of tasks to accomplish leading up to planting day. Getting all your ducks in a row before planting day will make it go smoothly and make it possible to plant a huge number of bulbs.
- Follow my plan for batching tasks on planting day. Batching tasks will save you tons of time. I go into this in more detail below.
- Come up with a plan for meals on the planting days. You won’t have time to make meals on the days that you’re planting, so either make something ahead of time or come up with a plan. My husband got takeout for us on both days.
- Get a good night’s sleep the night before planting day so you can get up early and be ready to plant, plant, plant!
Make your detailed planting plan
Assess your current situation.
- How many bulbs do you want in that bed?
- How many bulbs do you currently have in that bed?
- What’s your budget?
Decide what bulbs to buy for that bed.
- Make a wish list of bulbs you want to plant in each bed.
- Make this list general.
- Do this for each bed.
- Figure out the number of bulbs you’ll need for that bed.
- Select specific varieties.
Here’s an example.
- Let’s say I want to plant 8 groups of daffodils, grape hyacinths, and crocuses in a bed.
- I know for maximum impact I’ll need 9 daffodils, 12 grape hyacinths and 12 crocuses per group.
- Just multiply those numbers by 8 to get the total for each.
I created a spreadsheet for this project.
Create a timeline of tasks leading up to planting day
- 1-4 days before planting: water
- 1-2 days before planting: sort your bulbs
- 1 day before planting: assemble all of your tools
1-4 days before: check the moisture level of your soil and water it
1-4 days before you’re going to plant, check the moisture level of your soil. If it’s dry water it lightly – just enough to wet the top 6-8 inches of soil.
Watering a couple of days before planting will allow the soil to dry out enough so that you can safely plant without destroying your soil structure.
- If your soil is clayey water it 2-4 days before
- If your soil is sandy water it 1-2 days before planting.
3 days before: mark where your groups will go
- I used surveyor’s flags to mark out the groups of bulbs.
- I used different colored flags for different groups and noted that on my checklist ().
2 days before: sort your bulbs
- Sort your bulbs by type. It’s easier to find a specific daffodil when all the daffodils are together.
- Sort the bulbs for each bed into their planting groups.
- I used paper lunch bags to sort the bulbs for each group. I put only one type of bulb in each bag and labeled it.
- As I added the bulbs to the bags, I checked them off my list.
1 day before: assemble your tools
Here are the tools I used to plant 4,000 bulbs
- Surveyor’s flags
- Tape measure (or ruler)
- Yardstick (or long paint stir stick)
- Narrow shovel for tight spaces
- Buckets or Tubtrugs
- GardenGlide (for pulling heavy buckets over grass)
- Garden fork
- Border fork
- Garden rake
- Garden gloves
- Weeding tools
- Pruning shears
- Kneeling pad
- Wire mesh (if you have problems with digging rodents: voles, gophers, etc.)
How to plant large amounts of bulbs quickly (Batching your tasks)
Forget using dibbers, bulb augers, or other bulb planting tools. To plant large numbers of bulbs you need to dig a series of wide, shallow holes.
Why wide, shallow planting holes are the best way to plant bulbs:
- You get that massed effect from the blooms.
- You can more easily protect bulbs from digging and burrowing animals.
- It makes planting large amounts of bulbs possible.
How to dig the shallow, wide holes
- For each hole, decide how deep it needs to be. The depth depends on the largest bulb in the group. Let’s say the largest bulb is a daffodil. Daffodils need to be planted 6” deep. So, I dug holes 6” deep using a shovel.
- How to know if your hole is deep enough.
- For this, you need a measuring stick, ruler or tape measure and a long, flat piece of wood, like a yardstick.
- I used two paint stir sticks from Home Depot. They happen to have a ruler right on them.
- Decide how wide it needs to be. For your first hole, lay out the bulbs you want to plant on the ground to get a sense of how wide the hole needs to be. The more you do this, the faster and better you’ll get at it. After a few holes, you should be able to skip this step.
- Dig your hole. Empty the soil into a bucket, big nursery pot or Tubtrug. Dump it into your wheelbarrow or onto a tarp.
- Measure the width. Widen it if you need to.
- Measure the depth. Lay the long stir stick, yardstick or piece of wood across the hole. Use the short stir stick or ruler to measure the depth of the hole. Adjust it until it’s the right depth.
- After you do this a few times, you’ll get a sense of how big to dig the holes, and it’ll go quickly.
- If the soil in this bed is compacted, loosen the bottom of each hole with a garden or border fork.
Dig all of your planting holes in each bed (or large sections of each bed)
The advantages of digging all of your holes ahead of time:
- You can adjust your plan as you go along.
- You’re harnessing the benefit of batching your tasks.
So, dig all of the holes you need for each bed before planting a single bulb.
Steps to follow:
- Bring all of your bulbs to the bed that you’re working in.
- Bring all of the tools you’ll need to that bed.
- You may need to prune back plants to dig your holes. Just be sure to prune as little as possible, especially when it comes to plants that should be left standing over the winter.
- If you have mulch on this bed, rake the mulch off where each planting hole will go. Pile it on a tarp or in a wheelbarrow.
- Dig all of your wide, shallow planting holes first. At this point, you’ve already decided on the number of bulb groups you’re going to plant in each bed. You know how many groups of what bulbs you’re going to plant, and you know how big to make the holes.
- Then loosen the bottoms of all the holes, if they need it.
- Add wire mesh to the bottom of each hole if you need to. You may need to protect your bulbs from digging and burrowing animals with chicken wire, gopher mesh, or hardware cloth.
- Batch-plant the bulbs. Plant all bulbs pointy-side up/root-side down!
Individual bulbs in large groups
Let’s say you’re planting ten groups of daffodils and ten groups of grape hyacinths in one bed.
- You’d dig all 20 holes.
- Plant all of the daffodils.
- And then plant all of the grape hyacinths.
Mixed groups of bulbs in each group
Let’s say you’re planting ten groups that have both daffodils and grape hyacinths in them.
- Plant all of the daffodils.
- Grab your trowel, the soil you dug from the holes, and the grape hyacinth bulbs.
- Top off the daffodils with enough soil to make the hole the correct depth for the grape hyacinths.
- Plant the grape hyacinths.
- Cover up all of the holes with the soil you dug from the holes.
- Cover the top of each hole with wire mesh, if you need to. The holes in the mesh need to be large enough for the bulbs to grow through.
- Lightly water each hole.
- Mulch the planting holes. Mulching is an important step. Don’t skip it. It’ll stop the bulbs from heaving over the winter.
Have you tried planting your bulbs in large groups? How’d it go? Let me know in the comments!
Hi, I'm Cheryl. I'm a certified gardener, bird lover, and spreadsheet enthusiast. I believe that with a few smart strategies and a little know-how, you can grow your dream garden and still have time to enjoy it. I teach online gardening courses and write articles that help you save time and money in your garden.
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