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Plant a Bulb Garden

Blooming bulbs are one of the first signs of spring. Depending on the variety, they bloom until fall. Bulbs are easy to plant and care for and suitable for beds or containers. It's hard to believe that so much beauty can come from such humble origins.

Bulb garden.

About Bulbs

A bulb is a nutritional unit that sustains the plant when it is too cold or hot to flower. It helps the plant to survive by storing food during its dormant period (from late spring when the foliage dies to early fall when roots form for a new growth cycle), and it provides nutrients during the growing and flowering season.

The term “bulb” has become a catchall for the four major types of underground storage units. They all perform the same basic function.

  • True Bulb — includes hyacinths, daffodils and tulips.
  • Tuberous Root or Tuber — includes dahlias and some begonias. Fleshy rooted daylilies are similar in appearance.
  • Corm — includes crocuses and gladioli.
  • Rhizome — includes bearded irises and cannas.

Bulbs are further classified as hardy and tender. Hardy bulbs are cold-tolerant and can survive in the ground during the winter. They need the cold, chilling period of winter to perform at their best. In Southern climates where there is little or no frost, it's a good idea to dig these bulbs up every couple of years and store them in the refrigerator during the summer to simulate winter so they will keep blooming year after year. Hardy bulbs are planted in the fall and are typically spring-flowering. Hardy bulb varieties include tulip, crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, anemone and iris.

Most tender bulbs are called summer bulbs, but there are several varieties that bloom in the fall. Tender bulbs are cold-sensitive and may not be able to survive the winter in areas of the U.S. other than the Southern coastal regions, the Southwest or coastal areas of California. Unless you live in these climates, you will need to plant tender bulbs in the spring after the ground has warmed up and dig them up in late fall for winter storage. Some tender bulb varieties are elephant's ear, caladium, gladiolus, canna and dahlia.

When selecting bulbs, choose large firm ones that will produce the most flowers. Select them much like you would choose an onion or piece of fruit. A nick or small blemish is of no great concern, but avoid soft or moldy bulbs. Also, be sure they are free from visible disease and damage.

The bloom cycles listed below are for general reference. The flowering sequence depends a great deal on the weather in your region as well as the variety of bulb you plant. Planting a mix of these varieties will provide color from spring into fall.

  • Very early spring — Crocus, snowdrop
  • Early spring — Daffodil, crocus, hyacinth
  • Mid-spring — Daffodil, fritillary, tulip
  • Late spring — Fritillary, bluebell, lily
  • Early summer — Allium, lily, iris
  • Mid-summer — Lily, gladiolus, dahlia, iris
  • Late summer — Lily, dahlia

Planting Hardy Bulbs

Planting at the proper depth and spacing is critical to successful bulb gardening. Bulbs have an internal clock that tells them when to begin growing. Planting too deep will produce late (or no) blooms. Planting too shallow can subject tender new growth to late-season cold weather. Follow this chart or the instructions on the package.


Plant amaryllis 3-4 inches deep and 6 inches apart.




Plant crocus 2-4 inches deep and 3-5 inches apart.




Plant hyacinth 4-6 inches deep and 6-8 inches apart.



Plant lilies 4-8 inches deep and 10-12 inches apart.



Plant narcissus (also known as daffodils) 8 inches deep and 6 inches apart.



Plant snowdrops 3 inches deep and 3 inches apart.



Plant tulips 4-6 inches deep and 4-6 inches apart.

In colder climates, plant hardy bulbs as soon as possible after purchase. In milder climates, plant hardy bulbs in late October or early November after the soil has cooled. Keep them in the refrigerator or some other cool spot until you set them out. In warm-winter climates you may need to pre-chill bulbs before planting to trick them into a dormant state. Simply place them in a container with a lid and put them in the refrigerator for eight to 10 weeks.

Avoid storing fruit (especially apples) in the refrigerator while you are chilling bulbs. Ripening fruit gives off a gas that may stop bulbs from flowering.

There are also two primary bulb shapes, the teardrop and the flat or clawed bulb.

Teardrop-shaped bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and hyacinth should be planted with their tips facing up. If their tips face down, they waste their energy trying to grow in the opposite direction.

Flat bulbs should be planted with the flat side facing up. If the bulbs have appendages or roots, these should be facing down. If you are unsure, plant the bulbs sideways.

Planting a Bulb Bed or Border

  1. Choose a sunny, well-drained spot for your flower bed. Bulbs thrive in the sun, but blooms last longer if they do not have to endure full midday sun. Bulbs need to be dry — if your bed site does not have great drainage, work in a gritty material such as sand or landscaping charcoal to promote better drainage.
  2. Lay the bulbs out on the ground to get a sense of the arrangement you would like. This is especially helpful if you are planting masses of bulbs in different colors. You will need to decide if you want to group colors together or mix them up. Be sure to keep different colored bulbs separate if you want groupings of color. Try to stagger them slightly to avoid uniform rows of color, unless this is a particular look you want to achieve.
  3. Dig the planting bed or trench roughly 6"-8" deep, placing the soil to the side.
  4. Sprinkle a specially formulated bulb food or bone meal into the trench and work it into the soil. The bone meal will fertilize the bulbs through the winter and promote vigorous blooming in the spring.
  5. Arrange the bulbs in the trench in the proper planting position and at the right depth. You may have to add soil or dig slightly deeper to get the right planting depth. Slightly press them into the soil to ensure that they do not lose their positions when you cover them with soil.
  6. Carefully replace the soil in the bed and firm it once the bulbs are covered.
  7. Water thoroughly and cover with a 2" layer of mulch or leaves to help keep the bulbs moist and protect them from frost.

Hide Wilting Blooms

Since many bulbs bloom and fade quite early in the spring, you may want to plan for flowers to disguise and take the place of wilting blooms. You can do this in several ways. Here are two examples:

  • After you have planted your bed but before you have mulched it, sprinkle perennial seeds or a seed mix over the bed and rake lightly into the soil. Water well and cover with a 2" layer of mulch to insulate the seed for winter. Some mixes include varieties that can be planted to bloom along with the bulbs and continue to bloom throughout the summer to disguise and replace the fading bulb blooms.
  • When the weather permits, mix annuals in your bed as bulb blooms fade. Eventually the entire bed will be replaced by annuals. Cut off faded bulb blooms for a neater look — this is also good for the bulbs and helps them store energy for the next blooming season.

Planting Single Bulbs

Crocus bed.

If you are planting a few bulbs randomly in smaller groupings such as around trees or mixed in a perennial bed, you do not need to dig a large trench. You can plant your bulbs quite easily with a bulb planting tool. Large bulb varieties such as irises, hyacinths, tulips and daffodils are particularly effective planted this way.

  1. Push the bulb planting tool straight down into the soil. Pull up the tool and squeeze the handle to remove the soil plug.
  2. Sprinkle a little bone meal or booster into the hole and place the bulb in the correct planting position. Replace the soil and water well.
  3. You may want to broadcast bulb booster or bone meal over the entire planting area.

Digging Up and Storing Tender Bulbs


When the foliage has turned yellow or brown on your tender bulbs, and before the first frost, you will need to protect or dig them up and store them for the winter.
A blanket of mulch should protect tender bulbs throughout the winter in the Southern coastal regions, the Southwest or coastal areas of California. In other areas of the U.S., these tender bulbs should be dug up and replanted after the danger of frost has passed.

1. Cut tall stems back to a few inches so you can work with the base of the stems.
2. Using a digging fork for large clumps, or a hand trowel for small bulbs, loosen the soil around the plant so you can easily lift the bulbs.
3. Shake excess soil from the roots and spread the bulbs on newspaper to dry in a cool, shady place out of the reach of animals.
4. Once the bulbs have dried for a few days, you can store them in a perforated paper or mesh bag, or in a box with damp peat moss to keep them moist. Experiment with which storage method is best for you.
5. Store the packaged bulbs in a dark, cool and dry place that maintains a temperature of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. A basement, cupboard, crawl space or an attached garage may be appropriate.
6. During storage, check the bulbs every month. Discard any bulbs that are rotting and moisten those that are shriveling.