How to Plant Spring-Flowering Bulbs

person holding box of bulbs

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Spring-flowering bulbs offer a colorful display when the rest of the landscape is still waking up from its winter dormancy, and they require very little effort to grow. Most bulbs that flower in the springtime should be planted in the fall. But the exact timing depends on the specific bulb and your growing zone.

From which end goes up to when to feed, here are some tips for how to plant bulbs.

Choose Healthy Bulbs

Avoid bulbs that appear withered, spongy, or moldy. In general, the larger the bulb is for its type, the more flowers it will produce. Small bulbs are typically less expensive but will have smaller or fewer flowers. Furthermore, if you live in an area without a freezing winter, you can purchase pre-chilled bulbs. You don't have to plant these bulbs until the early spring.

Select the Right Location

Most flowering bulbs prefer full sun, which most planting sites receive in the spring as the trees don't yet have their leaves. So don't overlook a spot in your garden just because it’s a bit shady in the fall. However, note that woodland bulbs—such as Anemone nemorosa (woodland anemone), Arisaema (Jack-in-the-pulpit), Erythronium (dog's tooth violet), Galanthus (snowdrop), and trillium—prefer a bit of shade in their planting location.

Make Sure Soil Conditions Are Good

Bulbs don't like to sit in wet soil. This is especially true when they are dormant in the summer. So choose a planting site with good soil drainage to prevent bulb rot. Plant your bulbs in the fall as long as the soil is soft enough to dig a hole (i.e., the ground is not frozen solid). This gives them time for their root system to develop before the ground freezes. Mix some bone meal or superphosphate into the soil at planting time to encourage strong root growth. Sprinkle the food into the bottom of each hole. You also can mix in some water-soluble fertilizer, but that's usually not necessary.

Plant With the Pointed End Up

The pointed end of a bulb is the stem. You might even be able to see some shriveled roots on its flatter end. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell which end is pointed, but that's OK. Use your best judgment, and trust that the stem typically will find its way up and out of the soil, growing toward the sunlight. If you're really not sure, you can plant your bulb sideways to make it easier for the stem to grow upward than if you planted it facing down. In general, bulbs should be planted to a depth of about three times their diameter. For daffodils, that’s about 6 to 8 inches.

Protect the Bulbs

If rodents tend to eat your bulbs, you can sprinkle red pepper into the planting hole to help deter them. A more secure method is to plant your bulbs ensconced in hardware cloth. The roots and stems will grow through the cloth, but the rodents won't be able to get to the bulbs. You also can plant bulbs that rodents and other animals tend to avoid, such as daffodils.

Water When Necessary

Water the bulbs after planting to help them settle and close any air pockets in the soil. Then, through the fall and winter, you only need to worry about watering your bulbs if you’re having a particularly dry season. Come spring, you should be well rewarded for your effort.

Tips for a Great Bulb Display

Now that you know the basics for how to plant bulbs, apply these suggestions to take your bulbs to the next level:

  • Place bulbs in clumps: Bulbs look best in clumps or drifts, which gives them a natural appearance. To achieve this, either dig a large area and plant several bulbs at once, or simply toss the bulbs in the air and dig holes and plant wherever they fall.
  • Mark the planting site: To make sure you don't disturb your bulbs by trying to plant something else in the same spot, mark where and what you have planted.
  • Don't forget about spring care: When your bulbs have finished flowering and the foliage has died, cut back the flower stalks to ground level. Resist the temptation to cut back the stalks when they're still green but floppy. The bulbs need this time to photosynthesize and make food reserves to produce next year’s flowers.
  • Divide bulbs as needed: Many bulbs spread and produce more plants, which can make the planting site overcrowded. If your bulbs aren't flowering as well as they used to, overcrowding might be the culprit. So you can divide your bulbs when they enter their dormant period usually just after the foliage completely dies back. Note that dormancy is brief, so don’t put off this task.