Planting Spring Bulbs

At Sunday, we love adding diversity to our yards by planting native plants and wildflowers, seeding clover into the lawn, letting flowering weeds bloom, or planting veggies or ornamental gardens. Planting bulbs can also be a great way to ease into gardening and can add a variety of color to the garden throughout the year.

What are Bulbs?

The term “bulb” is commonly used to describe a variety of plants that grow from underground, fleshy storage structures, including:

  1. Corms: short, squat stems adapted to store energy. 
  2. Tubers: fleshy roots that act as an energy reserve. 
  3. Rhizomes: underground stems. 
  4. True bulbs: contain a complete plant – roots, stems, leaves, and all!

Regardless of the type of bulb, there are hardy and non-hardy types. Hardy types are planted in the fall, survive the winter, and will bloom in the spring. Non-hardy types can’t handle the cold, and are planted in spring for summer color.

Why Plant Hardy Spring Bulbs?

Bulbs are great for adding a pop of spring color to the landscape. Many are great sources of pollinator food in the spring as well. Plus, bulbs are great for your little garden helpers since they’re easy to handle and hard to mess up!

Sunday ProTip: Many bulbs require a several-weeks-long chilling period to stimulate growth. In areas where winters aren’t very chilly, bulbs may need to be dug up, refrigerated or stored in a cool spot, and replanted each year to ensure bloom!

What Spring Bulbs Should I Plant?

This is largely up to you! Bulbs are a great way to play around with color and texture. Generally, mass plantings of a single bulb type look great, or mixing bulbs in odd numbers can also be a fun way to experiment! You can mix bulbs in with other landscape plants for variation in height, color, and texture and can even plant some bulbs in your lawn. This also helps hide the dying bulb foliage in the spring. Some additional things to keep in mind when deciding on the type of bulbs to plant:

 

Bloom Time

Early spring bulbs: crocus, anemone, early tulip

Spring bulbs: tulip, hyacinth, grape hyacinth, daffodil, fritillaries

Late spring bulbs: iris, ornamental onion

 

Height

Short bulbs (<6-8 in): crocus, grape hyacinth, dwarf iris

Medium bulbs (6-16 in): hyacinth, daffodil, some tulips

Tall bulbs (>16 in): some tulips, anemone, fritillaries, iris, ornamental onion

 

Keep in mind that most bulbs require full sun – if they are planted in the shade, they may not flower the second year and should be treated as annuals. Early spring bulbs can be planted around deciduous trees and will usually finish blooming before the trees leaf out and shade the area.

 

How to Plant Spring Bulbs

Once you pick out your bulbs, it’s time to get dirty! Plant spring bulbs in well-draining soil when soil temperatures drop below 60°F (but before the soil freezes). Good drainage is essential to prevent the bulbs from rotting. To plant your bulbs, do the following:

Prep the soil. You can dig individual holes for each bulb, or, if you are mass planting, you can loosen all of the soil where you will be planting. Add some slow release bulb fertilizer at the bottom of the area so it’s ready for the roots. 

Plant the bulbs. Most bulbs can be planted about 3 inches deep, with the pointed end facing up and the flat base down. Cover with soil and water the bulbs generously. You can add a thin layer of mulch over large bulbs, if desired, to help retain moisture and reduce temperature fluctuations.

Sunday ProTip: If you have a lot of squirrels, deer, or other bulb-eating animals around, you can lay chicken wire on top of the soil over your newly planted bulbs – this will prevent animals from digging up the bulbs, but still allow the shoots to grow up between the wire.

Label. Label or map what and where you planted – underground bulbs are easy to forget when they aren’t in bloom!

How to Care for Spring Bulbs

In the spring, water during dry periods, but don’t overwater. Soggy soils can cause bulbs to rot. Add some more slow release bulb fertilizer when you first see shoots appear, and again once flowers decline to add a boost of nutrients for fall storage. 

And since we are talking about nutrients – don’t cut the foliage. Let it turn yellow and die back naturally so all those nutrients also go back into the bulb.

Sunday ProTip: Don’t fertilize bulbs when they are in bloom, because this will encourage bulb rot and shorten the bloom time. 

In warmer climates, you may need to dig up your bulbs and replant every fall. In most places, though, bulbs will usually last around 3-4 years or so before they start to decline. If you notice fewer blooms after a couple of years, dig up the bulbs. They have likely created some “offshoots” which you can divide and replant (bulbs really are the gift that keep on giving!). Keep the large offshoots, but toss the small ones – they likely won’t have enough energy to fare well for more than a season or so. Clean, dry, and store your bulbs in a cool, dry place until they’re ready to replant in the fall!

Cited Sources

Cornwell, R. Bulbs & More: Planting & Care. University of Illinois Extension. 

Meyer, M.H. Planting bulbs, tubers and rhizomes. University of Minnesota Extension. 

Penn State Extension. Bulbs, Corms, Rhizomes and Tubers

Russ, K. and B. Polomski. Spring Flowering Bulbs. Clemson Cooperative Extension.