Plant Bulbs In The Fall For A Beautiful Spring Garden
Add colorful blooms to your spring garden by planting bulbs this fall. From Tulips to Narcissus to Muscari, we’re sharing everything you need to know to get started on fall-planted bulbs.
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After a long winter of looking out at our white and dreary backyard, I always welcome the bright and cheery pops of color from spring flowers. Thanks to Jeremy we have a beautiful display of Tulips, Allium and Muscari to enjoy every spring before our summer garden starts to bloom in June.
Last fall was the first time I helped Jeremy with fall-planted flower bulbs. Once spring arrived, it was pretty clear that most of the bulbs I planted weren’t successful and Jeremy’s were all blooming. The whole area that I planted had a few tulips here and there, but the vast majority of space where I planted was EMPTY.
Planting bulbs may seem like a no-brainer task, but that wasn’t the case for me. I learned a few things from this experience and hopefully won’t make the same mistakes this year. Read on for the best tips for planting bulbs in the fall for a colorful spring garden.
ANNUAL + PERENNIAL BULBS
Perennials grow back each year from roots that go dormant in the soil over the winter.
These bulbs are considered reliable perennials, and will rebloom for about 5 years as well as multiply: Anemone, Crocus, Leucojum gravetye (summer snowflake), Narcissus (daffodils), Scilla, Chionodoxa, some Allium varieties and Galanthus (snowdrops).
These bulbs bloom for several years before needing to be replanted: Alliums, some Fritillaria varieties, Muscari (grape hyacinth), and Iris reticulata.
These bulbs should be treated as annuals, meaning the bulbs will need to be replanted every year (bulbs do not have enough energy to produce full size flowers after the first year): Iris hollandica (Dutch iris), Anemone mt everest (St Brigid) and Anemone sylphide (De Caen), Freesia, Ranunculus, Tulips.
STRETCH THE SPRNG FLOWERING BULB SEASON
When it comes to fall-planted bulbs, the spring bloom season spans early to midseason to late season within an 8-10 week stretch. By planting fall-planted bulb varieties with different spring bloom times, you can have bulbs flowering throughout the entire spring season.
The trick is to plant several types of bulbs with early, midseason and late season bloom times. With this method, you’ll have flowers in bloom for as long as possible.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN PURCHASING BULBS
As bulb size goes up, so does price. Larger bulbs contain more energy to bolster pant growth and flower development. By spending a little more on bigger bulbs, you’ll get more abundant blooms in return. Store bulbs in a cool, dry place until ready to plant.
WHEN TO PLANT?
Spring-flowering bulbs are planted in the fall (September through December, depending on your climate zone).
WHY? A long period of cool temperatures is required to stimulate the biochemical process that causes them to flower. The period before the ground freezes is when the bulbs to begin growing strong roots before going dormant over the winter. Cold temperatures also suppress fungal growth, so your bulbs will be less susceptible to disease.
We’re in Zone 5, so our planting range is between late September to early-November. We usually get our bulbs in the ground in mid-October.
SOIL + DRAINAGE
Fall-planted bulbs prefer soil that’s well-drained. Bulbs can rot in soil where water collects.
WHERE TO PLANT FALL-PLANTED BULBS
Fall-planted bulbs love full or partial sun (at least 6 hours of direct sun a day). This helps the bulbs attain their maximum height and flower size. In warm climates, the spring bulbs in bloom will last longer if shielded from the hot afternoon sun.
Check the back of the bulb package for instructions if you’re not sure what conditions your bulbs need to thrive.
HOW TO PLANT A WHOLE BED OF FALL-PLANTED BULBS
For this method, you need to clear out the area to be planted and dig a trench in the soil about 8” deep, setting aside the extra soil to cover the bulbs. Place the bulbs in the bed following the spacing recommendations on the back of the bulb package. Cover the bulbs with the extra soil. If the soil is dry, water thoroughly.
HOW TO PLANT FALL-PLANTED BULBS INDIVIDUALLY
This is the method we use. We interplant the bulbs in between and in front of our perennials. Each bulb needs to be planted in an individual hole, and each hole needs to be spaced about 5 inches apart.
My biggest mistake last year was not digging the holes deep enough. Two things can go wrong when you don’t dig deep enough:
- Bulbs planted at too shallow a depth are vulnerable to frost heaves that can expose them to drying winter winds and cold.
- Squirrels and mice can find and dig up bulbs a lot easier if they’re planted right below the surface (and these sweet bulbs are like candy to them).
The other mistake I made was not using a tool to dig each hole. I dug each hole with my finger, which meant I wasn’t able to dig each hole as deep as I would have with a tool, and it caused my finger and nailbed to throb with pain.
I HIGHLY recommend using a tool like a hand trowel, auger or bulb planter to dig each hole. Drop the bulb (or bulbs–small bulbs such as those of anemones can be planted in threes or fours) into the hole. Replace the soil. If the soil is dry, water thoroughly after planting.
HOW DEEP TO PLANT FALL-PLANTED BULBS
The general rule of thumb for planting fall-planted bulbs is to plant two to three times as deep as the bulbs is tall.
- For big bulbs like Alliums, plant to a depth of about 8 inches deep.
- For medium-sized bulbs like Tulips and Narcissus (daffodils), that translates to about 6 inches deep.
- Smaller bulbs like Crocus and Muscari should be planted to a depth of about 4 to 5 inches deep.
WHICH END OF THE BULB TO PLANT UPWARD?
Most true bulbs, such as Tulips, have pointed tips that should point upward when planted. Some of the smaller bulbs that have indistinguishable tips can be planted in any direction– their shoots will find a way toward the light.
Bulbs know to send shoots up and roots down, so don’t worry too much about which end is up. They’ll grow and bloom even if you plant them upside down.
HOW MANY BULBS PER SQUARE FOOT?
- For jumbo bulbs like Allium giant (globemaster), plant 1-2 bulbs per square foot.
- For medium-sized bulbs like Tulips, plant 4-5 per square foot.
- For smaller bulbs like Muscari, plant 15-25 per square foot.
INTERPLANTING SUMMER PERENNIALS + FALL-PLANTED BULBS
We don’t have the space to plant massive swaths of Tulips, but we DO take advantage of interplanting our fall-planted bulbs in front of and around our summer garden perennials.
It’s a long wait from the fall until our perennial garden starts blooming in June, so interplanting fall-planted bulbs allows us to enjoy spring blooms starting in April. At about the time the fall-planted bulbs are done blooming, the summer perennial garden starts to come into bloom. That’s perfect timing for a spring, summer and fall full of beautiful, colorful flowers!
When planting fall-planted bulbs around your summer garden perennials, take care not to damage any perennial roots when digging holes for the fall-planted bulbs. Cornell University Department of Horticulture compiled a list of the 15 BEST bulb and perennial combinations.
Cornell University Department of Horticulture also has a list of 44 combos of bulbs and perennials that work well together.
KEEPING CRITTERS AWAY FROM BULBS
Squirrels may have been one reason my bulbs never sprouted. Since I didn’t plant the bulbs very deep, our resident squirrels may have taken that opportunity to steal them. It’s harder for pests to get to your bulbs if you dig down at least three times the height of your bulbs. Cover bulbs with soil and remove any dried bulb casings.
To double up on protection, cover the planting area with wide wire mesh, such as chicken wire. Extend the wire three feet beyond the planting area and stake it down or weigh it down with bricks. Cover the wire with mulch or leaves.
If the soil is dry at planting time, water thoroughly after planting. Thereafter water only if you experience drought-like conditions. Stop watering after the bulbs bloom. Overwatering can cause the bulbs to rot.
Some fall-planted bulbs, like Anemones, Crocuses, and Narcissus (daffodils), will come back the next few years after planting. After the bulbs bloom, dead-head the spent flowers or seed heads. It’s important to let the foliage die back naturally.
DON’T cut the foliage before it yellows and withers! This prevents the bulbs from producing the energy they’ll need to grow and bloom again next year.
For spring bulbs like Tulips that you plan on replanting every fall, you don’t need to wait until the foliage yellows to discard the whole plant.