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How to plant bulbs now for a beautiful spring garden

Tulips abound.

How to plant bulbs Credit: Getty Images / Mikhail Artamonov

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After a long, dreary winter, spring-flowering bulbs can brighten your yard and make life more cheerful. Even better, they’re some of the easiest flowers around to maintain.

You can grow them in pots inside all winter long, or sneak them into the ground before it gets too cold. If you can dig a hole, you can plant a beautiful spring display and have a welcome surprise come March. Here’s how to get started.

What exactly is a bulb?

Bulbs are underground plant parts that store energy over the winter so the plant can resprout in the spring. Technically, there are different names for different types of bulbs depending on exactly how they grow—like corms, tubers, and rhizomes—but in stores and garden catalogs, they’re all called bulbs.

When to plant bulbs

Bulbs with shovel
Credit: Getty Images / onepony

The best time to plant bulbs depends on your region, so be sure to check frost dates before you dig in.

If you’re planting your bulbs outside, you should put them in the ground in the fall after daytime temperatures start cooling down to below 70°F in the day, and below 60°F at night. It’s fine to plant bulbs after your first frost date, but try to get them into the ground at least a few weeks before the ground freezes to give the bulbs a chance to root.

In the north, you should plant bulbs any time from late September through late October; in southern areas, you may need to wait until November, December, or later to plant. The exception to this timing rule is tulips. You can plant tulips any time until the ground freezes, and they’ll be fine.

If you live in a place with short winters, or you’re planning to grow your bulbs indoors, you may need to do a little extra work before you put your bulbs in the ground. Some bulbs need to be chilled at refrigerator temperatures (roughly 35°F to 45°F) for eight to 12 weeks before they will bloom. That includes tulips, crocus, hyacinths, and some daffodils.

Refer to the chill time and the time to bloom for common bulbs, or consider bulbs that don’t need pre-chilling.

Most garden companies will also sell pre-cooled bulbs for planting indoors, also called “forcing.” These bulbs are ready to plant immediately.

How to plant bulbs outside

soil knife
Credit: Fiskars

A soil knife, or hori hori, with measurements on the side can help you know just how far to dig.

The general rule of thumb is to plant bulbs at depth equal to four times the height of the bulb. A tulip that’s 1.5 inches high should be planted so the bottom of the hole is 6 inches under the surface of the soil.

You can also layer bulbs in a single hole for weeks of bloom with a lot less digging. Put a large bulb like a tulip or daffodil at the bottom, a smaller narcissus or two above it, and finish with crocus an inch under the soil.

Some specialized tools can make planting bulbs a little easier, especially if you’re planting a lot of them. The Fiskars Hori Hori soil knife, with inches and centimeters marked on the blade, is great for digging holes just the right size and depth for your bulbs.

The ProPlugger 5-in-1 Lawn Tool and Garden Tool is another easy way to dig a lot of bulb holes fast. Step on this pipe with footrests and a handle to make a 2- to 6-inch-deep hole in the ground. Put your bulb in the hole, then turn the ProPlugget upside down to put the dirt back into the hole. It’s simple, and effective.

If you’re going to be planting an entire yard of bulbs, the Tools for Life 9-inch Roto Driller Garden Auger by Lewis Tools can save your back and your sanity. It’s an electric drill attachment that digs holes up to 7 inches deep—deep enough for all but giant bulbs.

Don’t be afraid to plant bulbs in, near, or under other plantings. Bulb foliage dies back early, so you’ll have plenty of ground space for your other plants.

Most bulbs do fine in normal garden soil with no special treatment. If you’re concerned about your soil’s fertility, order a soil test from your state agricultural extension office. You can also apply a slow-release 10-10-10 fertilizer (equal parts nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) to the soil according to the package directions when you plant your bulbs.

Some squirrels acquire a taste for bulbs, especially tulips. If your yard is full of furry friends, put a layer of chicken wire or half-inch mesh on top of your bulb plantings. Just remember to pull it up in the early spring before the bulbs start sending up shoots.

How to plant bulbs inside

Storing tulip bulbs for winter
Credit: Getty Images / Tom Merton

Some bulbs are too fragile to be left outside all winter, so dig them up to store in your home.

You can plant bulbs in any kind of plant pot as long as it has good drainage. Fill your pot with potting mix, leaving a quarter-inch space at the top to prevent runoff when you’re watering.

The pot only has to be up to 1 inch taller than your bulbs, depending on what you’re planting. For tulips and hyacinth, plant the bulb with the tip just showing above the soil line. Daffodils should have about half the bulb above the soil line. And small bulbs like crocus (under 1 inch in diameter) should be planted 1 inch below the soil line.

If you’re starting hyacinths, crocus, or narcissus indoors, you can use a glass vase such as a hyacinth glass instead of a pot with soil. Simply put the bulbs in a vase where the bottom of the bulb is close to the water, but not touching it. Bulbs that are actually sitting in water will rot. Top off water when it gets low.

For the first week, keep the bulbs at a low temperature for the first week (approximately 50°F to 60°F) and in low to medium light, like a north-facing window. After a week, move them to brighter light at regular room temperatures.

The best bulbs to plant

Early bloomers

Crocus growing out of snow
Credit: Getty Images / Ekspansio

The crocus flower is an early bloomer, popping up in late-winter to early-spring.

If you’re eager to get a jump on spring, plant snowdrops. These tiny, white, drop-shaped flowers are some of the earliest blooms to appear, popping up from the snow in many areas as early as February.

If you prefer a little more color, chionodoxa flowers are star-shaped blooms available in shades of sky blue, purple, pink, and white. They bloom ever so slightly later than snowdrops.

Crocus are the classic cup-shaped early spring bloomers, most commonly available in shades of yellow, orange, purple, and white—or sometimes all three colors at once.

For a variety of earlier bloom, look for smaller versions of late-flowering bulbs. Miniature narcissus like Little Gem, and low-growing “species” tulips like Persian Pearl bloom in the early spring, long before their vase-filling relatives.

Fragrant flowers

Hyacinths growing in a flower pot
Credit: Getty Images / Antema

Hyacinths are one of the more fragrant options for your garden.

If you’d like to fill your yard (or your apartment) with the sweet scent of spring, you can’t go wrong with hyacinths or fragrant narcissus—and both of these flowers can be made to bloom indoors.

Remember, hyacinths and grape hyacinths are different plants. They’re both fragrant, but grape hyacinths are much smaller, with closed cup-like flowers that look like bundles of grapes. If you want to be able to smell your flowers from any room in the house, choose the larger hyacinths.

You’ll need space outdoors for fragrant peonies, which sport big, lush blooms on bushes that reach up to 3 ft. across. Peonies’ strong scent and long-stemmed, full flowers make them garden favorites.

Cutting flowers

Red tulips growing along a fence
Credit: Getty Images / yuelan

If you start planting now, you could grow your own bouquet of tulips by Mother's Day.

Tulips are the stars of spring bouquets. Apeldoorn is a classic red tulip that will make any vase pop with color.

For a softer, more subtle look, peony-flowering tulips are full, double-petaled flowers that bloom in late spring. They look a lot like English “cabbage roses.” Favorites include pale pink Angelique and ivory white Mount Hood. Buttercup-yellow Akebono has a similar form.

In late spring, Dutch iris are great cut flowers for tall vases and modern designs. They come in shades of yellow, white, purple, and coppery brown.

Big bulbs

Giant Alliums
Credit: Getty Images / KenWiedemann

Giant alliums look like something from the mind of Dr. Seuss.

If you want big, fat flowers in your garden that look like they hopped out of a Dr. Seuss book, grow giant alliums, which grow to be purple puff balls on 4-foot-tall stalks in late spring. You should plant at least three of them to get a good “aliens have invaded my yard” look.

Most alliums bloom in the interval between when early spring flowers fade and when summer perennial flowers begin to arrive, so they’re an excellent choice for smaller-scale plantings as well.

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