When and How to Plant Spring Bulbs

Plus: Top Varieties of Spring Blooming Bulbs

Bed of yellow and purple tulips.
dinadesign/Getty Images

Spring bulbs aren't just ordinary plants. Their flowers, which bloom in various colors, are vibrant enough to breathe life into the drabbest flower border. Beauty's one thing; timeliness is another. Spring-flowering bulbs reappear just when we most need color: early spring. To enjoy the treat of seeing them push up through the soil in spring, though, remember to plant them at the right time (and in the right way) in fall, according to your growing zone.

When to Plant Spring Bulbs:

  • Zones 2...MORE to 3: September
  • Zones 4 to 5: October
  • Zones 6 to 7: November
  • Zone 8: December

How Deep to Plant, Care Tips

To determine planting depth, go by bulb height. Dig a hole three times deeper than the height of the bulb. So for a bulb 1 inch tall, go 3 inches deep. 

It also matters which way you place the bulb into its hole. Inspect the bulb for either a point or tiny roots. If you find a point, that's the top. If you find roots, that's the bottom. Place the bulb in the ground such that the top points skyward. If you can't make out a top but do find roots, place the end with those roots at the hole's bottom. When planting, sprinkle bulb fertilizer in the hole and water (but don't flood the area, which causes bulb rot).

Spring's the time when spring bulbs need the most moisture. If you aren't getting much rainfall, it's up to you to supply water from the time you first spot flower buds until two weeks after flowering. Ensure that the water is penetrating down to bulb-level underground. Most types of spring bulbs grow best in well-drained soil in full sun.

After flowering finishes, deadhead, but leave the foliage alone as long as it remains green. Your plants are gaining nutrients through photosynthesis during this time. You'll deprive them of nutrition if you rob them of their leaves. 

Usually, the leaves don't look very good after blooming. But this is a case where practicality trumps aesthetics. Disguise the unsightly leaves with the fresher foliage of perennials by interplanting the latter among your spring bulbs. The perennials will start to leaf out fully just as the bulbs' leaves are beginning to look ratty.

When bulbs peter out, divide them after the leaves turn brown. Fertilize with compost and bonemeal every fall.

Now that you know when to plant spring bulbs and how to care for them, learn about the best choices available, by color!

  • 01 of 07
    Ambassador Allium bulb plant with a big flower.
    David Beaulieu

    There are various alliums, which come in many heights and with flower heads of different sizes. Allium Ambassador (zones 5 to 8; all of the spring bulbs listed here are hardy to at least zone 5) stands out in two ways:

    1. Its flower head is big (7 inches), perfectly round, and densely packed with tiny, purple flowers. That of Allium schubertii is bigger, but Ambassador's is denser.
    2. It's one of the tallest alliums (46 inches). 

    Even after flowering, an attractive dried seed-head remains behind, offering interest in summer. Poisonous plants for pets, they are, happily, also deer-resistant bulbs.

  • 02 of 07
    Reticulated irises in bloom.
    NERYX/Getty Images

    Hyacinthus orientalis (6 to 12 inches tall) also comes in red, white, blue, pink, lavender, yellow, peach, and salmon, but the deep-purple type may be the most striking. If you want to go even deeper, Midnight Mystic produces black flowers. Hyacinths produce clusters of waxy, fragrant, star-fish-shaped flowers.

    People may not think immediately of reticulated irises (Iris reticulata) when mention is made of irises, since the flower is smaller than most. But they make up for this by being early bloomers. The delicacy of the flowers is also valued, but they aren't fragrant. These plants are shorter than most irises (9 inches).

  • 03 of 07
    Crocus blooming when there's still snow.
    Crocus can bloom even when there's still snow on the ground. David Beaulieu

    With its aromatic yellow trumpets, the classic daffodil (Narcissus) is one of the most popular spring bulbs; King Alfred is an example (a medium-sized spring bulb at 1 to 2 feet tall). But daffodils come in various sizes, shapes, and colors, including miniatures and those with cups rather than trumpets. A selling point for daffodils is that squirrels tend not to eat them (squirrels may, however, dislodge your bulbs), because they are poisonous plants.

    Although they are classified as corms, crocuses such as Crocus vernus are grouped with spring bulbs for practical purposes. Crocus vernus is one of the earliest spring-bloomers. But Crocus sativus and the similar Colchicum autumnale bloom in fall. Besides yellow, common colors are purple, white, and lavender.

  • 04 of 07
    Snowdrops with closed flowers.
    David Beaulieu

    Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are short spring bulbs (3 to 6 inches) known for blooming early (thus the "snow" in the name). The tiny flowers won't make much of a statement on solitary plants, so mass them together to create an impact (good advice for all spring-bulb plantings, but especially for the smaller types). The plants multiply on their own over time.

    For bigger plants, grow giant snowdrops (Galanthus elwesii), which reach 1 foot tall. So do the similar spring snowflakes (Leucojum vernum).

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07
    Grape hyacinth plant in flower.
    Damjan Pozeg/Getty Images

    Scilla siberica bears nodding, blue, star-like flowers on 8-inch plants. It naturalizes well, making it suitable for woodland gardens. Being toxic, it's also deer-resistant.

    Don't confuse grape hyacinth (Muscari botryoides) with Hyacinthus orientalis. Both smell great, but grape hyacinth bears tiny flowers in clusters reminiscent of grape clusters. Height is 6 to 10 inches.

    Spanish bluebells (Hyacinthoides hispanica) are lavender-blue rather than true blue. They also come in white and pink. Height is up to 16 inches.

  • 06 of 07
    Fritillaria with big orange flowers.
    David Beaulieu

    Depending on variety, tulips (Tulipa) stand 10 to 30 inches tall. Flowers come in orange, yellow, red, pink, white, and purple; some are bi-colored. For continuous sequence of bloom, you could grow, for example:

    • Fosteriana (early-flowering)
    • Triumph (mid-season bloomer)
    • Lily-Flowered (late-flowering)

    At 3 to 4 feet tall, crown imperial (Fritillaria imperialis) is the tallest spring bulbs. But it's also the most short-lived. Besides orange, it flowers in yellow or reddish.

  • 07 of 07
    Chionodoxa plant in bloom.
    schnuddel/Getty Images

    Glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa) gives you another pink option, although it also blooms in blue and white. This early-bloomer and Scilla look-alike stands 4 to 5 inches tall. If you have an open spot in your rock garden that could use some spring color, plug it with a planting of these glorious spring bulbs.

Spring bulbs are so called because they bloom in spring, but you must first plant them in fall. The colder your climate, the earlier in fall you should plant them. Make sure you know which end is up when planting, and follow a few basic care tips to ensure your enjoyment of these beauties year after year. They come in enough different colors to satisfy any color palette.